Iraq? On another Memorial Day, we’re still talking about Iraq?
I attended the 2015 commencement ceremonies at Fordham University in New York. The otherwise typical ritual (future, global, passion, do what you love, you’ll never forget this place) began oddly, with an admonition to pause for a moment in honor of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a special congratulations to veterans among the graduating class. No other group was so singled out.
At William and Mary, a university that counts Thomas Jefferson as an alumnus, Condoleezza Rice was granted this spring an honorary degree in public service; William and Mary’s chancellor is former head of the CIA and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
The ongoing news features “gaffs” by various Republican candidates about whether they would invade Iraq then knowing now, or maybe then invade now knowing then, or tomorrow knowing less. Pundits recycle the old arguments about imperfect decisions, mistakes being made, and a new trope, that Obama “lost” Iraq.
The mother of the first Navy Seal killed in Iraq wrote an open letter to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. Dempsey responded to reports that Ramadi, Iraq fell to Islamic State by describing the city as “not symbolic in any way.” The mother asked a version of the familiar question, “so what did he die for?”
Remembering the Dead
Yes, it is another Memorial Day and we are still talking about Iraq.
The facts are in front of us. The Iraq War of 2003-2011 killed 4491 Americans. The Pentagon states 32,226 Americans were wounded “in action,” a number which does not include an estimated 200,000 soldiers who will suffer PTSD or major depression, or the 285,000 of them who experienced a probable traumatic brain injury.
On the Iraqi side of the equation, no one knows. Most of the Iraqis died more of the war — well-after then-president Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” and an end of major hostilities — than in the war per se. Estimates run from some 200,000 up to a million dead.
Argue with any of the numbers you like. Agree that the “real” numbers are big.
There are similar sets of numbers for Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and many other places America makes war, overtly, covertly and via drone.
Lessons from Iraq
And that is why we should, on Memorial Day, still be talking about Iraq. We haven’t learned anything from our mistakes there and it is time we did.
The lessons of Iraq are not limited to bad decision making, falsifying intelligence reports, and exaggerated claims about smoking guns and mushroom clouds.
Those are just details, and they come and go with wars: the Gulf of Tonkin incident that brought America into the Vietnam War was false. So were the stories out of Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing Kuwaiti infants from their incubators. Same for the “we’re just on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidi people” that reopened American involvement in Iraq less than a year ago. Just as false are the “we are invading ______ (fill in the blank with any number of locations) to liberate the people” there from a thug government, an evil dictator, another bad guy.
We’ve eliminated a lot of Qaddafi’s and Saddam’s, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone on the ground in their old countries happy about what resulted from that. War after war we need to fight back against barbarians who seek to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region (Communism? Terrorism?) War after war we need to fight “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here.
Maybe as late as the Vietnam War we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. Most hadn’t yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of “Morning in America.” But we of the September 12 group of Americans have no excuse.
The lies and fudges and mistakes that took us to war in Iraq in 2003 were not unique; they were policy. There is a template for every American war since 1945, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. Unless and until we talk about that on some Memorial Day, we will be talking about Iraq, or wherever next year’s war is, on another Memorial Day.
Alone at Night
I think about that mom who wonders what her son died for in Ramadi. She is not alone; there are lots of moms whose sons died in Ramadi, and Fallujah, and Helmand Province, and Hue and Danang, even Grenada. Late at night, perhaps after a third glass of white wine failed again to let them sleep, those moms may try and console themselves thinking their sons and daughters died for “something.” I can’t criticize or begrudge them for that, they having lost a child. Ghosts are terrible things to follow you through life.
The kids who will serve in our military into the “commitment” to Afghanistan that extends into 2024 are currently in elementary school. They are out on the lawn right now this Memorial Day, playing at being ghosts.
What I would like to do on this Memorial Day is ask all the mom’s who have not yet lost a child in a war that does not matter to think about those unthinkable things while they are waving a flag, and while their kids are still alive.
If we think about that this Memorial Day, maybe we can start to learn the real lesson of Iraq.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The Wall Street Journal reports while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, scrutinized politically sensitive documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and sometimes blocked their release.
Keystone, Bill and the Foundation
The Journal cites two examples. In one, Mills told State Department records specialists she wanted to see all documents requested on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and later demanded that some be held back (The Clinton Foundation received millions from proponents of Keystone XL.)
In the other case, Mills’s staff negotiated with the records specialists over the release of documents about Bill Clinton’s speaking engagements, many on behalf of the Clinton Foundation, also holding some back (During Hillary’s tenure as secretary, the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser gave near-blanket approval to at least 330 requests for Bill Clinton’s appearance at speeches, dinners and events both in the U.S. and around the globe. More than 220 paid events earned the family nearly $50 million.)
Mills interfering with the FOIA process at State to shield the Clinton’s politically would be a clear ethical and likely legal violation. But is it the only instance of her intercession in this way? Let’s ask Ray Maxwell.
Ray Maxwell has a helluva story: Hillary Clinton’s most senior aides participated in a Benghazi cover-up. Maxwell says he knows because he was there.
Raymond Maxwell was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, covering Libya. Soon after Ambassador Chris Stevens and others were killed in Benghazi, Maxwell says he participated in a secret Sunday session where Clinton aides Cheryl Mills and Jake Sullivan oversaw a document review with the aim to “pull out anything that might put anybody in the front office or the seventh floor in a bad light” (“Seventh floor” is slang for the Secretary of State.)
When Maxwell first made his allegations in September 2014, he was dismissed by most as a disgruntled employee with an agenda. There was no collaborating evidence.
But what we now appear to know about Cheryl Mills and her desire to shield Clinton from document searches adds a little more fuel to the fire.
BONUS: After Hillary left the State Department, Mills joined the Board of Directors for the Clinton Foundation.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The United States remains the world’s largest exporter of weapons.
The Middle East and North Africa are among America’s most lucrative arms markets, and U.S. defense companies and contractors have opened local offices as the demand shows no sign of abating.
I sat down with VICE News to discuss the (lack of) controls on U.S. arms exports. The focus is on how arms sales were built into our war efforts in Iraq, and how the “controls” on selling weapons to regimes that violate human rights are bypassed via a compliant State Department.
One highlight of this documentary is VICE News traveling to the International Defense Exhibition and Conference in the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi, to examine the competition between arms manufacturers vying for a greater portion of the lucrative market.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Reflecting perhaps a simpler time when all of the Middle East was not a violent sh*thole, in 1976 George Lucas filmed numerous scenes from the first two movies out in the Tunisian desert. You remember — C3PO and R2D2 stumbling down the sand dunes, Luke’s home with the two suns, the Cantina town, that stuff. Most of the sets are still out there. However, due to the new dangers of terrorism, director JJ Abrams did not return to the country to film his upcoming Star Wars episode, The Force Awakens, instead using locations in Abu Dhabi.
Meanwhile, Islamic State has not destroyed the old Star Wars movie sets. The confusion started when media began reporting that the real Tunisian town of Tataouine, the source of the fictional movie planet name, and just the name, Tatooine, had become embroiled in the country’s unrest with IS. The town is now fully unsafe, serving as a waypoint for IS travelling to and from training bases in Libya. Major arms caches have been found in the area, one of them with 20,000 rounds of ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers for your home-made Death Star needs.
The good news for fans is that the movie sets are not in Tataouine, but much further out in the desert, at Matmata, Tozeur, and on the island of Djerba. Repeat: the movie sets are OK. Tunisia itself is still a huge mess, so you still probably can’t travel out there, but perhaps your grandchildren may, when terrorism is confined to another galaxy, far, far away.
So sleep well, young Jedi. Islamic State is not the terror droids you’re looking for.
While hosting the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Washington and at Camp David last week, Obama faced a hard sell: assuring the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that the United States has an Iran policy that encompasses their security needs.
He also tried to encourage the six countries to work together for their own collective security, but in a way that dovetails with American strategic goals.
It did not work.
Only two of the six GCC nations even bothered to send heads of state. Three of the missing leaders pleaded health issues as their excuses to stay home; Saudi Arabia said its ruler, King Salman, didn’t travel due to humanitarian commitments to Yemen. The Saudi snub in particular reflects the concern, among America’s Sunni Arab allies, that the United States isn’t taking a hard enough stance toward Iran and its proxies.
The Saudis’ commitment to ensuring that the United States is ready to oppose Iranian-proxy forces even as rapprochement moves forward is clearly seen in Yemen. After tamping down the Arab Spring in Sana’a and easing a sympathetic government into power with Saudi support, America militarized Yemen. This approach was intended to be a model for a new “small footprint” strategy, where a compliant local government would be paired with drones and Special Forces to conduct joint strikes against Islamic militants fueled by intelligence from the United States. Obama cited Yemen as a successful example of this strategy as recently as September 2014. Yet the dissolution of that country, and the chaos that followed a tail-between-the-legs evacuation of American diplomats and Special Forces, instead planted an Iranian-supported rebellion on Saudi Arabia’s border.
When Washington did not decisively move to counter Iranian gains in Yemen, the Saudis lashed out in late March of this year. The recent Saudi royal succession, which concentrated power in a smaller circle, may have also put pressure on the new king to act aggressively. Though the Saudi attacks in Yemen are tactically aimed at securing its southern border, strategically they send a message to Iran to step back. They signal to the United States that Saudi Arabia wants Washington to become more engaged in the situation and perhaps use air strikes and covert forces, similar to what it is doing in other parts of the Middle East.
Increasing hostilities, including the Saudi use of American-supplied cluster bombs, forced Obama into that rock-and-a-hard-place that increasingly defines Washington’s policy in the region. He needed to ensure Saudi military action did not bleed over into open conflict with Iran, while demonstrating the United States would stand up for its allies. Obama’s tepid answer — saber rattling in the form of an aircraft carrier moved into the area — seemed to back down the Iranians for now, but said very little about long-term strategy.
The Saudis demonstrated in Yemen what might be called unilateral collective defense; though they could not assemble a robust pan-Arab force and have conducted most of the bombing themselves, they acted with regional assistance in the form of limited air strikes, reconnaissance help and statements of support. This is very much at odds with Washington’s idea of what pan-Arab collective defense should look like. After all, how far can relations with Iran progress — never mind the goal of regional stability — when America’s allies start new wars against Iranian proxies?
No matter who showed up for last week’s conference, Obama could only propose his own version of collective defense, a region-wide missile defense system. This was a significant step down from the NATO-like agreement with the United States the GCC would have prefered. (Stated plans to create an “Arab NATO” are still in process.) Obama included new arms sales to GCC states that, while afraid of Iran, still remain wary of one another. The United States wants to be the glue that holds the arrangement together. That would seem to be an optimistic goal since American glue failed to hold together any substantive pan-Arab force in Iraq and Syria, and tens of billions of dollars in arms sales over the years apparently have not been reassuring enough.
If Washington doesn’t reassure the GCC countries that it will oppose Iran in proxy wars across the region, expect more independent action from America’s allies in the Gulf. America cannot walk away from these countries; oil, long-standing alliances and U.S. strategic facilities and bases housed across the GCC are factors. This may lead to Washington finding itself dragged into any number of fights it does not want, or stuck playing intermediary between the Saudis and Iran, as it is now doing to help broker a short cease-fire in Yemen. Think Syria next, where the Saudis are already working on a deal with Turkey that is at odds with American policy.
Obama and the GCC nations concluded last week’s meetings with little resolved, even as all sides know they must ideally find some resolution ahead of the June 30 deadline for the U.S.-Iran nuclear treaty.
The old order is in flux. Iran is no doubt watching traditional allies snap at each other over its ascendancy with some satisfaction; discord only plays to its advantage. All three sides — the United States, the GCC and the Iranians — are watching the clock. What will be their next moves if time runs out?
It got me. Paranoia. Who is watching? What are the consequences in a September 12 world of things that used to be innocent?
I began researching materials online that advise, in English, how someone might travel to Syria and join Islamic State (IS). Several media outlets mentioned an ebook IS created along those lines, but none linked to it or dove deep into what it said. I set out to find it, Googling away with “how to join Islamic State,” and “advice for jihadi travel.” I eventually found the ebook with the term “hijrah.” Used in canon to refer to Mohammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina, the word today colloquially refers to those who leave home for jihad.
The ebook is brief, titled simply Hijrah to the Islamic State, some 50 pages with pictures and maps. The advice is mostly stuff you’d think people could figure out on their own. Bring a sturdy backpack, don’t tell Turkish immigration officials you are headed to Syria, don’t call attention to yourself in the airport, that sort of thing. There are a bunch of Twitter handles included so you can make contact with IS, but the few I checked were dead accounts.
You could probably do better with Lonely Planet (which also advises travelers not to call attention to themselves, but to avoid being targeted by thieves, not anti-terror forces.) I found another site just for women seeking to join IS, assuring the traveler she’ll be in female-only accommodations and that they have diapers and baby stuff available. Otherwise, it was all about bringing books to read on the long trip and not forgetting needed medicines.
I wrapped up my research with a quick buzz through Orbitz to see flight choices. New York was the default starting point because Orbitz had it already there from my previous searches. You can fly nonstop from the United States to Turkey, and then take a taxi to the Syrian border. Flights directly into Damascus involve a couple of stops, and most require you fly out of Newark. Jihad starts in Jersey, what a hassle.
All in all, not much of story in the hijrah ebook, and certainly nothing at the they’re-seducing-our-kids-into-terrorism level, though New York Times called it “a remarkable ISIS travel guide” and authorities in the UK want to ban it from social media. The ebook is in reality near useless, except as another boogie man for westerners to point to.
But I started to worry.
Look at me: I Googled up a how-to manual for jihadis. I’d previously read al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine online (Islamic State has its own online magazine, and I read that too.) I looked into travel to Syria. I sought out a good translation of “hijrah.” Everything I did, I did from an office desk. It was all on the Internet, with no secret meetings in shadowy places. So it was OK, like going to the library, right?
But I started to panic. How long until this reached critical mass, when some piece of software went “bing!” and some new protocol was applied to me? I have an international trip planned in a few weeks (plain vanilla Asia). Will I get selected for additional screening? Will I be questioned trying to exit or, later, when I re-enter the United States? Have I become paranoid? Should I be? Is it wise or stupid to worry about these things?
I remember discussing the Jeffrey Sterling Espionage Act case, the case that at one point threatened to send reporter James Risen to jail for not revealing his sources. My friend said the case was probably one of the last of its kind. So the government learned its First Amendment lesson I asked? No, she said, next time the government won’t have to threaten a reporter; most reporters will either shy away from such stories, their editors will kill the reporting to avoid an expensive legal battle, or the government will already know who they talked to.
I’m certain I am no James Risen. I’m pretty sure I didn’t write a more detailed story about the Islamic State travel guides because there was little to say, that the links I left out above were of little value. Google works at your house, too, if you really want to see them, and you’re not afraid of that, are you? The algorithms they — whoever they are — use are smart enough to see that I’m just a curious writer, and you’re just a curious reader, and none of us plans on joining IS, right?
I still wrote a lawyer’s phone number in the back of my passport. Can’t be too careful these days, as people say. Threats are everywhere.
The Clinton campaign, responding to snowballing accusations of influence buying through massive foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation both before, during and after the Hillary Era as Secretary of State, has made a statement: give us more money.
Never one to miss a chance at hypocrisy, the Hillary Clinton campaign is now fundraising off new reporting in the new Peter Schweizer book Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich.
In an email to supporters, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta writes:
There’s a new book out — written by a former Republican operative with ties to a Koch-funded organization — that uses allegations and conspiracy theories to stitch together a false narrative about Hillary without producing a single shred of evidence.
We’re only two weeks into the election and we’re already up against these baseless attacks.
If we don’t fight back now, we send a signal to our opponents that we’ll shrivel in the face of whatever will follow. This is an important moment in this campaign.
Podesta ends his email with a large Donate button.
Sleaze aside, if the money accusations have any effect on the voting populace (and so far their impact is unclear; people just may not care about anything anymore unless it involves Bruce Jenner’s gender transition), they will interfere with the carefully crafted Clinton 2016 narrative.
Clinton has outlined her election platform. One major plank already in direct conflict with the Clinton Foundation money is her stated desire to fix “our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all, even if that takes a constitutional amendment.”
The other Clinton theme, some gobbledygook about righting the wrongs of our 1:99 percent economy, also withers in the face of the massive flow of money into the Foundation.
Rules are for Fools
Lastly, for now at least, is the question of transparency. Already dinged by the use of a personal email server during her State Department tenure, a move that has shielded the majority of her actions and decisions from public scrutiny, Clinton now has new questions to answer about donations made to the Clinton Foundation.
Clinton’s disclosures have been somewhere between limited and non-existent. The New York Times:
As the Russians gradually assumed control of Uranium One in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013, Canadian records show, a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation. Uranium One’s chairman used his family foundation to make four donations totaling $2.35 million. Those contributions were not publicly disclosed by the Clintons, despite an agreement Mrs. Clinton had struck with the Obama White House to publicly identify all donors.
“This failure,” says the New York Times editorial page, “is an inexcusable violation of her pledge.” The issue is not whether Hillary handed out favors as Secretary, but whether or not she can be trusted at all.
Your call, America.
It comes down to things like this as citizens fight to preserve their basic rights in the face of militaristic police encounters. So let us use technology to fight back.
A new smartphone app from the ACLU (available in iPhone and Android versions) does two very good things. It allows citizens to exercise their right to video police encounters in the public space, and it guards against the cops unlawfully destroying that video to cover up their own crimes. The ACLU app accomplishes this by allowing people to auto-upload cellphone videos of police encounters to the ACLU. The ACLU will then review and preserve the video footage, even if the cops seize the phone and delete the video or destroy the phone.
In addition, once the video is uploaded, the user can delete the information from his/her phone, lessening the chance of retaliation by the cops if they discover the “evidence” during a post-arrest search.
The app features a large red “Record” button in the middle of the screen. When it’s pressed, the video is recorded on the phone and a duplicate copy is transmitted simultaneously to the ACLU server. When the “stop” button is pressed, a “Report” screen appears, where information about the location of the incident and the people involved can also be transmitted to the ACLU. The video and the information are treated as a request for legal assistance and reviewed by staff members. No action is taken by the ACLU, however, unless an explicit request is made, and the reports are treated as confidential and privileged legal communications. The videos, however, may be shared by the ACLU with the news media, community organizations or the general public to help call attention to police abuse.
The app is available in English and Spanish. It includes a “Know Your Rights” page, a library of ACLU materials in your pocket.
“People who historically have had very little power in the face of law enforcement now have this tool to reclaim their power and dignity,” said the director of the Truth and Reinvestment Campaign at the Ella Baker Center, which is working with the ACLU of California to support the launch of the app.
Who will guard the guards? We will.
As official United States forges ahead with its controversial 13-year Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, which, incredibly, extends from May 28, 2012 to November 11, 2025, and the world celebrates the 40th anniversary of the end of the American War in Vietnam this month, here’s a simple exercise that will help you comprehend the horrific magnitude of the loss of human and, more specifically, Vietnamese life during that war.
The next time you’re standing at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. thinking about the 58,000+ Americans who died in what was essentially a war of national liberation, perhaps including friends or family members, reach out, touch the black granite, close your eyes and multiply The Wall by 65.
Let that sink in for a moment: 58,300 times 65.
Let’s call it the Vietnamese Monument, the Ultimate Wall, inscribed with the names of 3.8 million mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, grandmothers and grandfathers, nearly nine percent of the population at the time, including two million civilians, who were murdered by the U.S. military, its client state and various allies, e.g. Australia and South Korea. A U.S. veteran friend had this to say about one of the 1.8 million Vietnamese souls who perished fighting to rid their country of yet another foreign invader: “One of our victims was searched when the shooting stopped and the bleeding continued and was found to be in possession of a medal. Our interpreter told us it was for heroism at the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ fourteen years previous. While we were sent to war to fight communism, he had fought his whole life for his country’s right to self-determination. We traveled 12,000 miles to kill him for that.” (From I Would Rather Die Alone — for Peace: A Soldier’s Dream by Steve Banko, 2003)
The 3.8 million is not a statistic pulled out of thin air; it is the number of violent war deaths, according to researchers from the Harvard Medical School and the University of Washington. It does not include Vietnamese who died as a result of war-related disease, hunger or lack of medical care.
3.8 million lives snuffed out, 3.8 million family members become memories, ancestral spirits and pictures on family altars, 3.8 million fates frozen in time. In case you’re counting, that’s the current equivalent of 28.87 million Americans (as of 4/24/15) or the combined populations of Delaware, New Mexico and South Dakota. To put it in historical perspective that’s over 60 percent of the number of Jews generally thought to have been exterminated during the Holocaust. Commemorate that.
If you want to begin to grasp how it’s humanly (or inhumanly) possible for so many people to be killed in such a short window of time and why so many U.S. veterans of that ill-begotten war suffer from PTSD, are disproportionately represented among America’s legion of homeless and continue to take their lives at an alarming rate, read Nick Turse’s best selling book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. [NOTE: See We Meant Well’s review of that book.]
If the truth sometimes hurts, this particular truth — in all of its technicolor brutality — will devastate and haunt you. It will also set you free, as in no more illusions and no place to hide, both essential prerequisites to overcoming an inglorious past.
Now close your eyes again and let a much larger and longer polished black granite monument take shape in your mind’s eye, the Vietnamese Monument, which extends from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument to The White House and back to the Capitol. It’s not all about U.S., is it?
Originally published in the Huffington Post
This graphic, however, is part of America’s multi-billion dollar effort to defeat Islamic State, so it is not intended to be weirdly amusing, even though it is. Somehow, this is actually serious.
An American F-15E pilot risked his life to drop 60,000 copies of the leaflet on Raqqa, Syria, the base of operations for the Islamic State. Al Jazeera’s translation says the image shows a “Daesh Employment Office” (Daesh is a pejorative nickname for IS in the Arab world, so nah nah poopy heads!) as two Floyd-esque IS recruiters feed young men into a meat grinder with “Daesh” written in blood on its side.
When asked about the intended message of the leaflet, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren, said “If you allow yourself to be recruited by Daesh, you will find yourself in a meat grinder.” Warren said the leaflet was created by the Army’s Military Information Support Operations, formerly known as PSY-OPS.
The theory of course was that some young man who is otherwise being bombed day and night by the U.S. and/or his own government and/or some rival militant group, will pick up the leaflet from among the other trash strewn all over the streets, glance at the whacky comic, and decide that instead of joining Islamic State he’ll, whatever, finally start in on that art history degree at community college his mom is always bugging him about.
Surprisingly, some experts have questioned the efficacy of the leaflet.
Faysal Itani, a Fellow at the Atlantic Center in Washington who studies the various groups fighting in Syria’s war, said anyone in Raqqa thinking of joining IS is either ideologically committed or coerced. “Members of the first category are likely immune to leaflet propaganda, especially if distributed by an air force that has been bombing Raqqa,” Itani said. The rest, he said, would join out of financial necessity, the need for protection, or because they were forced to do so.
News Flash to America: Dying for Islamic State, that whole jihadi thingie, is kind of what most recruits expect.
The government can block your foreign husband or wife from living with you in America, based on secret information you can’t see or contest. Like with the No-Fly list, in post-Constitutional America the walls are built of secret databases.
Taking Visas to the Supreme Court
On February 23, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Kerry v. Din. The U.S. government is seeking a writ of certiorari agreement by the Justices to review a lower court decision granting Ms. Din and her Afghan husband judicial review of his immigrant visa—green card—application. The state department permanently denied permission for the husband to live in the U.S. because he is supposedly a “terrorist,” based on secret information that will not be shared with Ms. Din or her spouse to allow rebuttal. Under present law, the state department’s decision to refuse the green card is subject to no outside review.
Consular officers working overseas for the department of state process visas. In nearly every non-drug-related denial, the foreign spouse can get a waiver and go on to live in the U.S. Throughout the process, the American and her spouse speak directly with the primary decision-maker and be able to rebut the information used against them.
Things change significantly in security cases. The information used to refuse a visa to a “terrorist” comes from the CIA, FBI, or NSA (information is also provided by intelligence agencies in Canada and Australia) and is highly classified.
Secret Lists and Secret Decisions
How all this works is almost a mini-history of post-Constitutional America.
The State Department’s consular officers issued legal visas to all of the 9/11 terrorists, in part because the CIA failed to pass information on via the computerized Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS). The number of records have grown 400 percent since 2001 in response, and CLASS is now one of the largest known databases in the world.
A problem with all those records is that many contain only a subject’s name, nationality, and limited identifying information. State department officers regularly wallow through screen after screen of “Muhammad, No Last Name, No Date of Birth, Born in Egypt.” The potential for misidentifying a subject is significant, but the post-9/11 mantra of better safe than sorry leans heavily toward refusal.
Mistakes Were Made
Mistakes entering people in secret databases, and mistakes of identity, are so common that online forms for making airline reservations all include a field for a redress number, a link to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) file that shows a subject has proven he is not the targeted person. One infamous case involving a database mistake is that of Malaysian doctoral candidate Rahinah Ibrahim, who was placed on the secret No-Fly list and denied the chance to finish her degree at Stanford University. The reason? An FBI agent accidentally checked the wrong box on a paper form.
As in the Ibrahim case, the actual consular officer/decision-maker overseas in the embassy never sees the underlying reporting that led to the data entry. She simply gets an electronic indication that the info exists, and then denies the visa. State Department policies state that she should not “look behind” the computer notice. The denial is based on the assumption that someone at CIA validated the information, that the person applying for the visa is indeed the person in the secret record, and that the information represents a violation of visa law. Once fiercely independent consular officers have become deferential subordinates to anonymous intelligence agency officials.
Such blind use of secret databases is at the heart of Kerry v. Din. Ms. Din seeks judicial review of her husband’s visa denial because, without explanation, he was deemed a “terrorist.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said she should be entitled to that review; the government’s admonition that everyone should simply trust them to have done the right thing was rejected.
Non-Reviewability of Government Decisions
The government now wants that court decision squashed. It steadfastly defends what is known as the doctrine of consular nonreviewability. This early-20th century doctrine maintains no one has a right to a visa, and that Americans do not enjoy a right to live with their spouses. It maintains that any review necessary of a decision should be done internally by the state department itself, under criteria it establishes for itself, becoming a government decision not subject to judicial oversight.
The issue of consular nonreviewability acquired new meaning after 9/11. Key in Kerry v. Din is that the consular officer herself is not actually making any decision per se. She cannot see any of the underlying information on the watch list, and simply defers to the CIA and refuses the visa. CIA claims it did not deny any visa, and points to state.
At issue in Kerry v. Din is the narrow question of whether or not an American citizen can know, and contest, the reason why her spouse cannot live in the United States.
The broader question is more significant: in post-Constitutional America, when more and more of our lives are controlled by secret lists built of secret information of often suspect quality, such as with No-Fly, is the courtroom door open to citizens to challenge our government?
Disclosure: I am a retired consular officer, with 24 years of visa experience, and an amici to the above case.
The surveillance aircraft can be equipped with infrared and other surveillance gear that extend the intrusion into privacy far into unconstitutional territory.
When violence rocked Baltimore recently, local Police Captain Jeff Long told reporters “When you’ve got something like this, you’ve got people running all over the place, throwing rocks and looting and starting vehicles on fire and destroying vehicles like this, really the best vantage point you can get is from the air.”
Which is why city and state police took to the air in helicopters and small planes, all clearly marked.
Eyes in the Skies
Less obvious was a single engine prop Cessna and a small Cessna jet flying over the city, not during the worst of the violence, but during periods of peaceful protest. Who did they belong to?
In response to media inquiries, the Baltimore police referred questions to the FBI. The FBI initially refused to comment. They eventually released a statement claiming the aircraft worked for the Bureau, saying also “The aircraft were specifically used to assist in providing high altitude observation of potential criminal activity to enable rapid response by police officers on the ground. The FBI aircraft were not there to monitor lawfully protected first amendment activity.” The local FBI spokesperson also noted any aviation support supplied to local police must be approved at the highest levels of the FBI.
The aircraft, however, are not owned, overtly at least, by the FBI. Research done in part by the Washington Post shows the ostensible owners as NG Research, located near Manassas Regional Airport, just outside of Washington, DC. Searches of public records revealed little about the company, which could not be reached by the Post.
Understanding the Technology
The key to understanding the constitutionality of the FBI’s dragnet search is knowing what sensors were mounted on each aircraft.
According to Cessna, “when you choose Citation [the jet believed to have been overhead in Baltimore] for your surveillance and patrol aircraft, we customize your jet to fit your exact mission requirements. For example, jets can be equipped with a securely mounted EO/IR device, technology specially suited to carry out territory surveillance work such as border patrol, land-use patrol, and general policing.”
EO/IR refers to electro-optical and infrared capabilities. In this context the former can be any type of laser or telescopic device used for visible light, the latter measuring “heat,” allowing one to “see” in the dark. Stingrays, electronic devices which can monitor and/or disrupt cell phone communications, can also be mounted on such aircraft.
The FBI is also known to employ aircraft with the Wescam stabilized surveillance sensor pod, allowing high quality images to be taken under bumpy flight conditions.
Such technology has been used extensively by the U.S. military in general, and by Special Forces in the particular, in their hunt for terrorists abroad, and represents another example of the weapons of war coming to the Homeland, now aimed at Americans instead of “the enemy.”
Here’s a sample image via Ars Technica of what a zoomed out nighttime IR image can show:
The ACLU has filed a request with the FBI to learn what video and cell phone data was collected during the flights.
It is possible that the FBI was simply duplicating the visual search capabilities likely to have been employed by regular Baltimore cops and their prop aircraft. However, such duplication of effort seems unlikely. One can reasonably suppose the FBI joined the aerial surveillance with something new to bring to the party, such as more advanced observation tech.
For example, on May 1 and May 2, what is believed to be the FBI Cessna Citation V jet made nighttime flights (path recorded below), orbiting Baltimore at the relatively low altitudes for a jet aircraft of 6,400 and 9,400 feet, based on records from Flightradar24. That action would be consistent with the use of any of the surveillance devices noted above.
The constitutional questions are significant.
Civil libertarians have particular concern about surveillance technology that can gather images across dozens of city blocks, tracking the travel, actions and associations of people under no suspicion of criminal activity.
“A lot of these technologies sweep very, very broadly, and, at a minimum, the public should have a right to know what’s going on,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU specializing in privacy and technology issues.
If the FBI was using infrared (IR) devices overhead, that use may have constituted an unlawful search.
In Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001), the Supreme Court held that the use of a thermal imaging, or IR, device from a public vantage point to monitor the radiation of heat from a person’s home was a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and thus required a warrant.
Perhaps the ACLU can check if the FBI was issued warrants for most of the city of Baltimore. And then stick a fork in it people, ’cause this democracy is about done.
The Republican House and Democratic Senate reached a compromise last year that cut Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; what food stamps are now called.) Republicans initially called for $40 billion in cuts, kicking millions of people out of the program altogether, including 170,000 veterans. The compromise cut $8 billion, which affects 800,000 households, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office.
Dollars and Sense
Dollars first. That $9 billion saved on SNAP would have paid for only 12.5 days of the Iraq War. For the Afghan War, $9 billion would pay for about one month (and that war is now in its thirteenth year, do the math.) America’s newest aircraft carrier cost $13 billion, not including development costs.
And now sense, or lack of it. A typical family on SNAP/food stamps gets $133 monthly. For three meals a day, $133 breaks down to $1.47 per meal; it is from that amount that the cuts will be taken. Almost 22 percent of American children under age 18 lived in poverty in 2012. The percentage of children under age five living in poverty is over 25 percent. Almost 1 in 10, or 9.7 percent, live in extreme poverty. Number of Americans on food stamps doubled in the last ten years. 47 million Americans now live in poverty, the highest number in two decades.
Cheaters? A Department of Agriculture report on “trafficking” in the food-stamp program found that only 1.3 percent of benefits were traded for cash.
Your takeaway: We have the money. We just don’t want to spend it on feeding Americans.
Poverty is Good Business
Cops investigating a crime often refer to the Latin term, cui bono, or, “who benefits?” The idea is to find out who has the most to gain from Colonel Mustard’s death in the Drawing Room and start the hunt there.
So if most Republicans, and many Democrats, want to cut food stamps, who does not want to see the cuts?
The food business loves food stamps. Wal-Mart, Target and Kroger have made huge profits of $75.2 billion off of food stamp purchases, setting a new record in 2012. And that’s not counting other purchases recipients may make with their own money.
Never mind how food stamps and other benefits are used by those same retailers to subsidize the low wages they pay their workers. Or how the same bill that would cut food stamps pays out farm subsidies to America’s billionaires, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Charles Schwab and S. Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A.
The American Beverage Association, a lobby group that includes Coca-Cola, strongly opposes restricting soda purchases by food stamp recipients. Why? Recipients spend from $1.7 to $2.1 billion annually for sugar-sweetened beverages purchased in grocery stores. Never mind that while alcohol and other unhealthy items are restricted for purchase with stamps, soda stands available.
Pepsi, candy-maker Mars and the Snack Food Association all registered to lobby the House of Representatives on food stamp restrictions.
Your takeaway: Mega-corporations are profiting off poverty, with their profits heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars.
So who benefits? Not hungry people. Do the math. It’s all about dollars and cents.
When Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State in 2009, the Obama White House required her to sign an agreement promising to have her family’s charities, under the umbrella of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI; now known as the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation) submit new donations from foreign countries to the State Department for review.
The agreement was designed to avoid potential conflicts of interest, given her new government role. The arrangement was made by an Obama administration covering its flanks over the appearance, at a minimum, of impropriety, given the significant sums of money the charities pulled in from overseas. Many of the countries and foreign corporations who gave the most money also had issues in front of the State Department, where a positive decision could change the donor’s fortunes.
The Clinton Foundation repeatedly violated this agreement with the Obama White House.
The Washington Post reported the Clinton Foundation failed to disclose $500,000 from Algeria at the time the country was lobbying the State Department over human-rights issues. Bloomberg learned the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership, a Clinton Foundation affiliate, failed to disclose 1,100 foreign contributions.
But the Boston Globe’s report on the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), yet another foundation affiliate (these people have more shell groups than a Mafia crime family), may cover the most notable omissions yet. Tens of millions of dollars went undisclosed to the State Department.
Overall, the Clinton charities accepted new donations from at least six foreign governments while Clinton was Secretary: Switzerland, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, Rwanda, Sweden and Algeria. Australia and the United Kingdom increased their funding by millions of dollars during this period.
The Lack of Consequences
The Obama White House remains deadly silent over the violations of its own agreement with Hillary and the Clinton charities.
Now the State Department, the organization charged with overseeing the agreement and monitoring its own Secretary for impropriety, says it too will do nothing.
On May 7, State Department spokesperson Jeff Rathke stated the Department “regrets” that it did not get to review the new foreign government funding, but does not plan to look into the matter further. “The State Department has not and does not intend to initiate a formal review or to make a retroactive judgment about items that were not submitted during Secretary Clinton’s tenure.”
The State Department spokesman said the Department was not aware of donations having an undue influence on U.S. foreign policy.
When reporters asked how the Department could know this without reviewing the belated disclosures, he declined to comment further.
No one can anticipate what issues may confront a president. No president’s full span of decisions can be made in public. There is, in the electoral process, a huge granting of trust from the people to their leader. In cases like the violation of the ethics agreement by Clinton, undisclosed for eight years, one must ask about that trust — has it been earned?
One must also ask how, and more importantly, why, the White House and the State Department simply wash their hands of this issue. The Congress and elements of the media, so obsessed with events in Benghazi, seem nearly unaware of these financial issues while Clinton held one of the most powerful positions in government.
Lastly, given that Clinton now seeks the most powerful position in government, one must ask why the American voters seem oblivious to the clear trail she has left behind of how she views trust and ethics in government.
Because America does not have enough war in the Middle East at present, and because more American arms introduced into any situation always make things better, Senator Joni Ernst introduced on Wednesday legislation to provide arms directly to the Kurds in Iraq, ostensibly so they could fight Islamic State (IS).
Cosponsors include Senators Barbara Boxer, Lindsey Graham, Ron Johnson, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio.
A companion bill was introduced in the House of Representatives and has some bipartisan support.
The Current Situation
For those who accidentally landed here thinking this was a Game of Thrones fan fiction site, a quick recap of what is going on with the Kurds, Iraq and IS.
Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country’s three major ethnic/religious groups — the Sunni, Shia and Kurds — were held in rough togetherness by Saddam and his police state. The U.S. broke all that, but failed to replace the police state with a functioning nation state. Hilarity ensued, plus 13+ years of internecine violence.
IS moved into Iraqi territory more or less on the side of the Sunnis in 2014. The Shia-led central government, supported and armed by the U.S. and Iran, along with the Kurds, went to war against IS.
The U.S. likes the Kurds, because they are non-Arab Muslims and have supported the many U.S. interventions in Iraq over the years. The Iranians do not really care for the Kurds, as they fear Kurdish independence inside Iraq will enflame their own Kurd minority.
The Kurds, who are essentially a de facto independent nation inside the rotting shell of “Iraq,” made common cause with the Shia’s against the threat of IS. The Kurds, however, have big plans for their own state, and are kept in check in part by the U.S.
One tool for that is making sure (most of) their weapons flow through the central Shia government.
Why This New Legislation is a Bad Idea
Not supplying weapons directly to the Kurds is not much of a policy, but it is what Obama went to war with, and it is not altogether bad. A balance of power in Iraq serves American interests and gives the U.S. leverage over the Shias.
The new Senate legislation will not likely pass, and even if it does, it will not force Obama to do anything. The actual on-the-ground policy toward the Kurds and their weapons is unlikely to change in the near-to-midterm. Only another collapse of Shia forces in the face of a new IS advance will alter policy.
Still, the action by the Senate reveals how clueless some Senators are toward the complex reality on the ground in Iraq (the Democratic supporters) and how willing to play politics with global events some are (the Republicans, especially Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, both presidential contenders.)
Just because we already know nothing good is going to come out of this latest Iraq War does not mean we still can’t find ways to make it even worse.
I had the chance to talk about all this on RT.com (the announcer says I am in Baghdad, not true. I am happily thousands of miles away, in New York):
As the handful of multi-millionaires running for president threaten to pretend to make “economic disparity” a campaign meme, and then forget they ever heard of it once in power, four out of five adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives. Here’s the new American dream.
Survey data exclusive to The Associated Press points to a widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend.
The survey defines “economic insecurity” as a year or more of periodic joblessness, reliance on government aid such as food stamps, or income below 150 percent of the poverty line. Measured across all races, the risk of economic insecurity rises to 79 percent.
The findings come even as Obama is claiming in recent speeches his highest priority (it has only been seven years+ so no hurry) is to “rebuild ladders of opportunity” and reverse income inequality.
No Longer a Race Thing
Poverty is often defined — by many whites — as a minority problem.
While minorities are still more likely to live in poverty, race disparities have narrowed substantially since the 1970s. Economic insecurity among whites also is more pervasive than is shown in the government’s poverty data, engulfing more than 76 percent of white adults by the time they turn 60, according to a new economic gauge being published next year by the Oxford University Press. Pessimism among whites about their families’ economic futures has climbed to the highest point since at least 1987.
More than 19 million whites now fall below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four, accounting for more than 41 percent of the nation’s destitute, nearly double the number of poor blacks.
Sometimes termed “the invisible poor,” lower-income whites generally are dispersed in suburbs and small rural towns, instead of being concentrated in urban areas more common to people of color. As an example, Buchanan County, in southwest Virginia, is among the nation’s most destitute based on median income, with poverty at 24 percent. The county is 99 percent white.
America is indeed becoming a more equal place, but through a gross process of leveling down, not growing up.
The issue of denial is the key to a tiny one percent of Americans getting away with this in what, overall, is still a very wealthy society.
People think because they and their neighbors have a TV, they are fine. Or they are divided into antagonistic groups by race, with one believing the other has all the money and power, while the other sees their urban neighbors as lazy welfare cheats. It does work well to keep people divided, fighting with one another, and thus ignoring that narrow band of upper, upper class folks who really do hold all the cards.
Inside that 80 percent of America slipping into poverty, people pay little attention to the quality of the food they can afford, the (lack of) healthcare, their poor schools and potted roads, the lack of forward opportunities for them and their kids and so forth. Short-sighted viewpoints, coupled with clever politicians who make each election about guns, gays and abortion, mask the obvious, even from the people boiling like froggies.
The State Department said Monday it has no evidence that any actions taken by Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state were influenced by donations to the Clinton Foundation or former President Bill Clinton’s speaking fees.
That may indeed be true, but it misses the real point. Simply because her actions may not have risen to provable criminal levels, the real issue is about trust. The numbers don’t lie. And this is not a partisan attack, it’s accounting. And accountability.
The Boston Globe seems to get that. It reported a huge Clinton charity failed to report its foreign-government contributions to the State Department as required.
When Hillary became Secretary of State in 2009, she agreed to have her family’s foundation submit new donations from foreign countries for State Department review. This was designed to avoid potential conflicts of interest, given her new government role. The arrangement was made by an Obama administration covering its flanks over the appearance, at a minimum, of impropriety.
Rules are for Fools
The Clinton Foundation repeatedly violated this agreement with the Obama White House.
The Washington Post reported in February the Clinton Foundation failed to disclose $500,000 from Algeria at the time the country was lobbying the State Department over human-rights issues. Bloomberg reported the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership, a Clinton Foundation affiliate, failed to disclose 1,100 foreign contributions.
But the Globe’s report on the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), yet another foundation affiliate (these people have more shell groups than a Mafia crime family), may cover the most notable omissions yet. Tens of millions of dollars went undisclosed to the State Department.
“Government grants to CHAI, nearly all of them from foreign countries, doubled from $26.7 million in 2010 to $55.9 million in 2013, according to the charity’s tax forms,” The Globe reported. CHAI “makes up nearly 60 percent of the broader Clinton charitable empire” and has an annual budget of more than $100 million.
“The failures make the Clinton Health Access Initiative… a prominent symbol of the broken political promise and subsequent lack of accountability underlying the charity-related controversies that are dogging Clinton as she embarks on her campaign for president,” The Globe wrote.
About that Agreement with the White House
A CHAI spokeswoman told The Globe that her organization “didn’t think” it needed to report many of the contributions because they were simply increased payments from existing donor countries.
The memorandum of understanding the Clinton Foundation reached with the White House, however, indicates otherwise under CHAI’s section of the agreement:
Should an existing contributing country elect to increase materially its commitment, or should a new contributor country elect to support CHAI, the Foundation will share such countries and the circumstances of the anticipated contribution with the State Department designated agency ethics official for review.
More on CHAI
A spokesperson for Secretary of State John Kerry said CHAI should have disclosed the contributions.
“We would have expected that CHAI identify for the Department the foreign-country donors that elected to materially increase their donations and new country donors. The State Department believes that transparency is the critical element of that agreement,” the spokesperson told The Globe.
The Boston Globe reported CHAI also failed to disclose numerous payments from new donor countries. CHAI offered several explanations: Switzerland was an “oversight.” Rwanda’s $300,000 was considered a “fee” rather than a contribution. CHAI did not consider Flanders a “foreign government” because it is part of Belgium rather than an independent country.
The agreement the Clinton Foundation struck with the White House, however, said CHAI contributions should be considered “a foreign country” if they are from “an agency or department of a foreign country, as well as a government-owned corporation.”
If there was a single, overriding lesson to crawl out of America’s failure in Iraq War 2.0, it is that destroying a government/leader is the easy part. Replacing what you have destroyed with a functioning government is the key to lasting victory. If you do not, all you get is chaos and, eventually, more conflict. That’s what paved the way for IS into Iraq, and is the real test of “victories” over the Islamic State (IS) such as Tikrit.
The much-hailed victory over IS is seen by many in the west as a model for the eventual defeat of IS throughout Iraq. It may indeed be such a model, but, once again, not the one America thinks it will be.
A Quick Tikrit Primer
The Islamic State occupied and controlled the city of Tikrit from June 2014 until last month. IS is largely a Sunni entity, and was generally welcomed by the majority Sunnis in Tikrit as a bulwark against the Shia forces of the Iraqi government, the Iranian forces on the ground and especially the Shia militias unleashed by both. The United States assisted in the Iranian-led take over of Tikrit in April 2015 in part by providing close air and tactical bombing support to the Iranian and militia forces.
With the declaration of victory, American forces were distracted by some other shiny object elsewhere in Iraq, and the media which followed the fight as if it was a sporting event, moved on. No one seems to be paying much attention to what is happening in Tikrit now that the shooting has stopped. However, if the Iraqi government fails to secure control of the city in an equitable way that is inclusive of the Sunni residents, and if someone cannot stop the Shia militias from taking bloody revenge on the Sunnis, the schedule ahead will be simply more war.
So let’s visit Tikrit, alongside the one journalist that has bothered to go there.
Revenge and Disarray
A reporter for NIQASH (a network of Iraqi correspondents managed by an international team of editors at Media in Cooperation and Transition, a non-profit media organization based in Berlin, is a generally reliable and non-sectarian news source) had this to say (excerpted) after making his way into Tikrit:
It’s been almost a month since the Islamic State group was expelled from Tikrit. NIQASH went there and found a graffiti-covered ghost town ruled by opposing groups of gunmen, none of whom trust one another.
In Basha Street in the centre of the Iraqi city of Tikrit, there are several buildings that have been completely destroyed. On the walls that remain there is graffiti: “These houses belonged to members of Daash,” the writing says, referring to the extremist group known as the Islamic State by their Arabic acronym. Their destruction was clearly punishment for membership of the extremist group.
One of the houses belonged to Nasser al-Amounah, a well known local and a leading member of the extremist group. His house has been almost completely levelled. Only one wall of the building remains standing and on it is written: “This is the house of the criminal, Nasser al-Amounah”.
As yet there’s no real civilian life here, no schools open, hospitals, courts of justice or police stations active. Residents of the city who fled their homes some time ago – the city was largely empty when the security forces arrived to fight the IS group – remain displaced, in cities around Iraq waiting for an official decision as to whether they should return. In fact, the city is more like a ghost town at the moment, populated only by wraiths from the various kinds of security forces in charge of different areas around the city.
Getting to Tikrit is hardly fun at the moment either. The soldiers deployed along the highways leading from Baghdad to Tikrit look terribly tired and they all seem to be in a bad mood. They certainly don’t trust strangers. They act as though everyone coming through here may as well as be a member of the IS group, until they can prove otherwise.
Once inside Tikrit, it’s not particularly easy to move around. There are three types of security forces inside the city and each controls its own areas. The first and most powerful is composed of members of the unofficial Shiite Muslim militias, composed of volunteers who took up arms to fight the IS group. The second strongest organisation in Tikrit is the official Iraqi army. And the third group here are the local police, who appear to have only limited resources and powers.
It’s difficult to travel around the city, even for members of the different groups. The security forces in charge of one area don’t trust those in charge of the other areas and any movement between neighbourhoods needs to be coordinated by their leaders. In some cases coordination hasn’t happened and threats have been made; there have even been some minor skirmishes apparently.
“Every now and then there are clashes between the Iraqi army and the Shiite militias,” one senior police officer said. “There are conflicts about who is in charge of what. And the army have been ordered by the government to search for vandals and thieves but there are huge problems in completing this mission. We don’t actually know who is in charge of Tikrit.”
As one travels around Tikrit some of the loudest sounds come from the vehicles belonging to the Shiite militias who tour the streets; they have religious songs blaring from their vehicles continuously. You also see other vehicles who distribute food to fighters all over the city; the food is prepared in large pots on makeshift, road side kitchens and the cost of the meals is paid for with donations from Shiite Muslim tribes in southern Iraq. Rumour has it that the Iraqi government hasn’t been able to deliver food to the soldiers and the militias’ fighters in some cases because of corruption.
One of the most famous parts of Tikrit is the area where many palaces are located. As the BBC reports: “Tikrit’s palaces have a somewhat mythical status. The city is widely cited as having the highest number of luxurious palaces built during Saddam’s time”. After passing through various hands – from Hussein to the U.S. military to the Iraqi government and then to the IS group – the palaces have now become a base for the Shiite militias. Nobody can even approach the area without express permission from the militia leaders.
Elsewhere in the city, houses and buildings and even mosque walls are covered in graffiti, often of a religious nature, or praising the heroism of the fighters from the Shiite militias who participated in the fight against the IS group here. They say things like: “The soldiers of Karbala were here”. And: “The heroes of Basra defeated terrorism here”. Some of the slogans have apparently been removed on orders from the Iraqi government because they were written in Persian, a reflection of the Iraqi government’s growing unease at Iranian influence among the Shiite militias.
The former administrators of the city remain in Baghdad or Samarra and they organise anything they need to from there. “The Shiite factions want revenge and they believe that we are traitors,” one of the officials from the provincial administration told NIQASH anonymously.
If civilians do start to return they would not only face threats of vengeance from Shiite militias and even from local police (who were also endangered by the IS fighters in Tikrit) but also from tribal conflicts. There have already been some retaliatory murders apparently – local police acted against residents who had been affiliated with the IS group, who they say were part of IS sleeper cells inside Tikrit even before the city fell to the extremists.
As part of the research for my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent, I visited many American towns and cities to learn how people live now in our New Economy. Here’s one portrait.
How many Americans have visited Harlem, even including quick dashes in for a now-trendy restaurant or music club, is unknown, but it is a small number. Even many life-long New Yorkers riding the Lexington Avenue subway through the wealthy upper east side are careful to hop off before reaching the 116th Street stop. But walk three blocks over to 119th and 3rd Avenue and you find yourself in a micro-economic world that has more in common with America’s economy of the 1950’s than 2013.
There are of course no shaded streets on this block in Harlem, no boyish Little League games. But what you do find are locally-owned stores that appear committed to serving the community. Not one place was franchised, not one corporate owned. The stores were full of what people in the area needed, and while the quality of the goods varied, prices were wondrously below what similar things cost a half dozen subway stops away in New York city. Everybody in the stores spoke the same language as the customers, and as family businesses, people were eager to help find things and to make suggestions. People held conversations. Customer loyalty is important, so prices are negotiable and when he found a customer was a neighbor, one shop owner helped carry things upstairs. The guy selling frozen ices outside did not work for a conglomerate and doled out healthy-sized servings to his regulars; he told me he bought his raw materials in the food store we stood in front of.
Even at night the sidewalks were full of people; I never felt unsafe even though I obviously was not from the neighborhood. People talked to each other, and were ready to give directions or argue over where to tell me to eat. The one mega-corporate store near the area, a Rent-a-Center charging usurious prices for junk, was empty. The guy next to it, with an impressive array of used TVs and small appliances from unknown Chinese manufacturers, was doing great business, shifting among English, Spanish and some sort of Dominican Creole.
Few things were shiny and new. The block had vacant lots, uncomfortable to walk past at night. Homeless people, one near-naked and muttering out loud, were more prevalent than in Midtown. The streets had more trash. I saw likely drug deals taking place against graffitied walls. Not everyone was a nice guy or the salt of the earth. Some, as they said, were just hanging dull in somewhere low. At the same time, local businesses catered to their community, and adjusted prices in line with what people could pay. Money spent in the neighborhood seemed to mostly be staying there. Decisions the businesses made, to open or close, staff up or lay off, were made by people in the area face-to-face with the people they affected.
There were far fewer men and women than in the decayed steel mill town of Weirton, West Virginia obviously drunk or on drugs; I had to walk further in Harlem to find a liquor store than in Weirton, and there were no strip clubs or bars in my part of Harlem. More families walked the streets than I saw off the Boardwalk in Jersey. More sad-looking people asked me for spare change in Atlantic City than in Harlem. Harlem is a galaxy away from perfect. But unlike Weirton, which had given up, Atlantic City, which was in the process, and Leavenworth, which had opted out of the system, Harlem was still trying. It shows how a micro-economy with ties to its own community can still work in America, at least in the short run: Target is building its first super store not far away.
Harlem is a galaxy away from perfect, but shows how a micro-economy, with no Walmart, and with ties to its own community, can still work in America.
A story of our times, with massive First Amendment issues embedded.
A federal judge ruled that a group (more below, who they are makes this case even more complex) may put up posters on New York’s public buses and subways saying “Killing Jews is worship that draws us close to Allah.” The poster features a young man in a checkered headscarf with the additional words “That’s His Jihad. What’s yours?”
The poster is now at the epicenter between public safety and free speech. On Tuesday, a District judge ruled New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) cannot stop the controversial ad.
The MTA argued the ad could incite violence against Jews.
However, MTA officials “underestimate the tolerant quality of New Yorkers and overestimate the potential impact of these fleeting advertisements,” the judge stated in his ruling. “Moreover, there is no evidence that seeing one of these advertisements on the back of a bus would be sufficient to trigger a violent reaction. Therefore, these ads — offensive as they may be — are still entitled to First Amendment protection.”
The MTA has now fired the next shot in the struggle, banning all “political” advertising on its subways and buses. You can certainly expect that decision to be challenged by a very broad range of actors.
The Speaker Versus the Speech
The issues surrounding the “Kill Jews” poster are complicated, in that the sponsor is a pro-Israel, anti-Muslim organization. Pamela Geller, the president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), the group that purchased the ads and sued the MTA to run them, was overjoyed at the court’s decision to allow her to post the, to some, inflammatory ads.
The Southern Poverty Law Center considers AFDI an “anti-Muslim” hate group. For example, earlier this year AFDI organized a portrait of the Prophet Mohammed contest, despite objections from Muslims who consider images of the Prophet blasphemous.
The presumed purpose of the “Kill Jews” ads placed by a pro-Israel group is to conflate the murder of innocents of one religion by smearing all members of another religion.
But can they say that kind of thing? Isn’t it Hate Speech and isn’t that illegal?
The Limits of Free Speech
The right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution isn’t there for the easy cases; it is there for the tough ones.
The Supreme Court has thus been very reluctant in modern times to issue limits on free speech; what is now commonly called “hate speech,” things like the Klu Klux Klan using the N-word, or religious fundamentalists protesting at veteran’s funerals by way of anti-gay slurs, have been ruled repeatedly to be protected acts of free speech. You get the good with the bad, no matter what you personally consider the good parts and the bad parts.
See how it works?
Some Bad History
The broad concept of free speech is somewhat recent in the Supreme Court’s mind.
One of the most shameful examples of restraint comes from the early 20th century case of U.S. v. Schenck. In that case, the Court decided Charles Schenck, the Secretary of the Socialist Party of America, could be convicted under the Espionage Act for writing and distributing a pamphlet that expressed opposition to the draft during World War I. It was in that case that Justice Holmes made his famous statement in favor of restraint, the one about free speech not allowing someone to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre.
So hate speech is illegal, like shouting Fire! and panicking a whole theatre full of people, right?
That Was Then, This is Now
The Supreme Court then did a 180 degree turn in the 1969 case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, which basically overturned Schenck. The Court held that inflammatory speech, even speech advocating violence, is protected under the First Amendment unless the speech “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
That is where today’s New York District judge’s specific wording came from. When he said that New Yorker’s would understand the broader political point of the “Kill Jews” poster and not actually be moved to murder, he was confirming the standard set in Brandenburg v. Ohio: you have to do more than just announce an intent toward violence, your statement has to be such that people will be actually willing to follow it.
Back to the New York Buses
Of course predicting what people might do in response to any bit of speech is very hard stuff. But the Supreme Court in fact granted that power to predict to the judicial system. In the “Kill Jews” case, the judge clearly decided no one would see the ads and decide, based on that, to actually commit murder.
And that brings us back to Justice Holmes, the same Supreme Court judge who gave us the “fire in the crowded theatre” lines. Holmes later recanted, and became a firm advocate of nearly unrestrained free speech. Holmes wrote (Abrams v. United States) that the marketplace of ideas offered the best solution for tamping down offensive speech:
The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.
In other words, let the ads play out on the New York buses and subways. The people are smart enough to know garbage when they smell it.
After selling America a bill of goods that he claimed won Iraq War 2.0 (i.e., “The Surge,” yeah, how’d that work out Dave?), General Dave went on to head the CIA, where he strongly supported long prison terms for whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and John Kiriakou, claiming in the latter case that secrecy oaths “do matter.”
Then of course when it became his turn, General Dave happily handed over higher classified data than either Manning or Kiriakou even had access to, all to his adulterous lover and so-called biographer, Paula Broadwell. How’s that for a two-fer, violating both his oath of secrecy and his oath of marriage in one soggy gesture?
But this is America, where justice is blind and all. Right?
So when when David Petraeus was sentenced last week to a mere two years of probation and a fine that is only a fraction of what he gets paid to make a speech these days, questions were asked. Why did Petraeus get off, so to speak, so easily?
Apart from the general sleaze in Washington DC, U.S. Magistrate Judge David Keesler said as part of the plea deal he received letters supporting leniency for the general. In fact, Keesler received nearly three dozen such letters, including some from “high-level military and government officials.”
“The letters paint a portrait of a man considered among the finest military leaders of his generation who also has committed a grave but very uncharacteristic error in judgment,” Keesler said at the sentencing hearing.
It might be interesting to see who in Washington supported a confessed leaker of highly-classified documents. But despite Petraeus’ light sentence being based in part on those letters, no one can see them. The letters were filed under seal by Petraeus’ lawyers, which the judge agreed to. No explanation was given by the lawyers or the judge about what public interest was served by keeping the authors and the contents of the support letters hidden.
Several media outlets, from The Associated Press to The Washington Post, filed suit Monday with Keesler demanding that he unseal them. But unless the judge is also sleeping with Paula Broadwell (who, by the way, was never charged with unlawfully receiving classified documents) and also, um, leaks, we may never know.
We’ll of course talk about my own experiences in that devastated country, as chronicled in my book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
I’ll also be discussing whistleblowing at the Department of State, and what patriotism and courage mean in a post-9/11 world.
My talk will be part of The School of International Affairs’ Global Issues Colloquium, which brings leading thinkers, authors, and scholars to Penn State to discuss the latest research and trends in foreign relations, conflict resolution, food security, poverty, religion, terrorism, and nation building. Organized by Professor Dennis Jett, a retired U.S. Ambassador, all presentations are open to the public and webcast live.
The theme of the series is best expressed by Ambassador Jett. “Major international problems cannot be solved through just one academic discipline,” said Jett. “Our guests have a wide range of practical experiences and perspectives to share.”
See you in State College!
History will remember us, but not well, and not as good and as just.
For we were the most powerful nation on earth, and we imprisoned a child named Omar Khadr in an off-shore penal colony, in the 21st century.
Omar Khadr in Canada
A Canadian court ordered on April 24 that Omar Khadr, the only Canadian to have been imprisoned at Guantánamo, be released on bail after 13 years in that shameful place. Khadr was thrown into Gitmo at age 15.
In 2010, eight years after his imprisonment commenced, Khadr pleaded guilty before a military commission to killing an American soldier with a grenade in 2002 during a battle in Afghanistan that also left Khadr severely wounded. Khadr is now 28, having spent the latter half of his childhood in an American prison.
Khadr was returned to Canada in 2012 to serve the remainder of the sentence the United States imposed, after he had already served eight years. He is now in a prison in Alberta. Another hearing at the Court of Queen’s Bench will determine when he will be released and will set conditions. The decision noted that the Canadian government challenged evidence that Khadr had been a model prisoner and that he was a “strong candidate” for release. Canada’s Conservative government had been reluctant to accept Khadr now that the U.S. is doing some housecleaning in Gitmo. Canada’s public safety minister said the government would appeal the bail decision. It is unclear whether or not that step will bar Khadr’s release.
Prisoner at Gitmo
The Canadians knew about Khadr.
In fact, they interviewed him in Guantanamo in 2003, observed by his American jailers. Khadr was just 16 then, and cried during the session. The Canadians told the kid that “we know who [your father] is… he is a lost cause.” Khadr responded “He didn’t do anything” and the Canadian interrogators moved on to question him about his brother, his mother and the whereabouts of other family members. Khadr mentioned his education had ended with 8th grade, and said he was forced into fighting in Afghanistan, something that sounds about right from a 15-year-old. He claimed his earlier confessions to his American jailers were false, that he just told them what they wanted to hear, again about right for a 15-year-old being questioned at length by professional interrogators, but you never know with these people, right?
According to a report by his Canadian government interrogators, “In an effort to make him more amenable and willing to talk,” [Redacted] has placed Omar on the frequent flyer program: for the three weeks before [Redacted’s] visit, Omar has not been permitted more than three hours in any one location. At three hours intervals he is moved to another cell block, thus denying him uninterrupted sleep and a continued change of neighbors. He will soon be placed in isolation for up to three weeks and then he will be interviewed again.” The Canadian writer cheerfully commented “He did not yawn or indicate in any way that he was tired throughout the two-hour interview. It seems likely that the natural resilience of a well-fed and healthy seventeen-year old are keeping him going.”
The Canadians gave him some food from McDonald’s and his first mail since arriving at Gitmo.
An Eye for an Eye
An American soldier wounded by Khadr 13 years ago is clear on his beliefs. “I’m a Western-civilization Christian,” said now-retired Green Beret Layne Morris. “I’ve been raised with the knowledge that people can and do change and improve themselves. I think most of us are trying to do that. But some people aren’t, and Omar Khadr has chosen a path which dictates that, as a result of his religion, he’s got to go to war against our society. Until he changes from that attitude, I’m not sure why we should turn him loose to wreak havoc on our friends and families and neighbors again.”
The retired Green Beret also has his own thoughts about his wearing a uniform while Khadr did not. “We have a long history of going to war with people who have answered the call from their country. And then when it’s over we’re able to sit down with our former enemies, shake hands and say, ‘we tried our best to kill each other but our countries are at peace now.’ But Omar Khadr hasn’t earned that status. He didn’t put on the uniform of his country. He trashed his country.”
It all makes sense, at least to retired Green Beret Layne Morris. He was blinded in Khadr’s attack, so an eye for eye seems a fair way to describe his feelings 13 years later.
Now somewhere out there is a reader who is saying “But the little bastard killed an American soldier. He deserved to be punished.” Maybe so. Justice is a tricky thing. But no American soldier was punished in Afghanistan for killing on the battlefield, and two presidents of the most powerful nation on earth were never punished for using drones to kill children.
It is widely reported that the U.S. would like to keep additional troops in Afghanistan past the previously announced withdrawal date. Secretary of Defense Carter is now in Afghanistan negotiating.
We listened in:
Afghanistan: Hey, thanks for the invasion and for staying these 14 years. It’s been fun and I hope we can still be friends and all…
Carter: We can invade anyone we want to you know, but hey, we picked you. You’re special to us and we want everyone to know that. Here, take this permanent base full of troops as a sign of our commitment.
Afghanistan: But that’s what you said to all the other countries you invaded! And even while you’re saying these nice things to us, you still have bases in Japan, Germany and Italy, and they’re like 70-years-old.
Carter: Sure, I have other… friends… but I have to keep those bases there for family reasons. You’re my new bestest friend. How about a base? Just one, a little one?
Afghanistan: But I saw on Facebook that you are flirting with Yemen and Syria and even Somalia. And don’t think I don’t know what you did in Sudan! And please, Iraq again? You guys broke up, “for forevers” Obama said on Instagram, and now look at you, back involved again. That bitch.
Carter: Hey, that’s not fair. Iraq is a just a friend with benefits. It doesn’t mean anything. I love you. Didn’t I promise you freedom and democracy in 2001? And then in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015? Besides, you were asking for it.
Afghanistan: You made a lot of promises, but I think you only like me for my big bases. You say nice things to me, but you really just want your hands on a base for when you are ready for Iran.
Carter: Aw, you know Iran and I are just good friends. I might fool around a bit with Syria, and yeah, Yemen looks pretty hot some days, but you’re the real one for me.
Afghanistan: OK, maybe you can have just one. But do you promise to pull out?
Carter: Of course baby. Would I lie to you?
It has come to this. There is a self-help guides from the ACLU on what to do if you think you are on the U.S. government’s no-fly list. Oh, and the TSA says 99 percent of the people who contact them about no-fly have been denied boarding only because their names are similar to a real bad guy. In most applications, a 99 percent failure rate is cause for alarm for an organization. In America, it is cause for alarm for us.
On September 10, 2001, there wasn’t any formal no-fly list, though the FBI held a folder of 16 names of suspicious flyers. Among the many changes pressed on a scared population starting September 12 was the creation of two lists: the no-fly list and the selectee list. The latter was for person who would undergo additional scrutiny when they sought to fly. The former, like its name, meant if your name was on the list you simply could not board a flight inside the U.S., out of the U.S. or from some other country into the U.S.
The flight ban can also extend far outside of America’s borders. The no-fly list is shared with 22 other countries.
Names are nominated for no-fly or selectee by one of perhaps hundreds of thousands of government officials: an FBI agent, a CIA analyst, a State Department visa officer and so forth. Each nominating agency has its own criteria, standards and approval processes, some strict, some pretty sloppy. Your name may end up on the list based on scraps of online postings or as the result of a multi-year detailed investigation or because of a bureaucratic typo. The nominated name is sent to The Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), located in a classified location in suburban Northern Virginia. TSC is a multi-agency organization administered by the FBI, staffed by officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and all of the intel community.
A key issue is that people are never notified they are on the no-fly list. The only way to even get a hint is to buy an airplane ticket and be prevented from boarding once you arrive at the airport after at check-in the airline receives a “no-fly” message. Through the interrogation process you may (or you may not) learn you might live in the list. You will never have any idea why you are on the list; maybe you share a similar name with some real or imagined bad guy. Still on the list? The only way to tell is to buy another ticket and see if you can board. Repeat.
What Do You Do?
For the most part, once denied boarding, you are on your own to get home. It is a long walk home from L.A. if you live in New York. But, in the topsy-turvy post-9/11 world, though the U.S. will not let you on an airplane (Twin Towers!) you can, for now, as a suspected terrorist, travel by ship, train, bus, rental car, horseback, donkey cart, unicycle or other means. Of course none of those conveyances have even rudimentary screening or security.
One option if you find yourself denied boarding is to contact the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) via their TRIP Program and ask them to remove your name from the no-fly list. You might succeed just by asking nice; the TSA itself says that 99 percent of individuals who apply for redress are not on the terrorist watchlist, but are misidentified as people who are. To start, you simply use DHS’ online form. They strongly encourage an online submission, warning on their web site that “if documents are mailed, it may take 10-15 business days to receive your submission due to federal government mail screening requirements,” something left over from the very small and long ago anthrax powder letters mailed to a handful of people in 2001. Careful though– proving you are not a terrorist must be done in a 10 meg attachment or less or DHS will reject your request.
If DHS agrees you are not a terrorist, you get a redress number which you can use when booking a ticket. There is never an explanation, and DHS is not allowed to tell you you are still on the no-fly list, or ever were, or why they did or did not issue you a redress number. If you never hear back from DHS and wonder if you are allowed to fly, the only way to tell is to buy another ticket and see if you can board. Repeat. Even with a redress number, DHS advises arriving at the airport extra early in anticipation of extra screening and questioning.
What If You Stranded Overseas?
One popular trick the government likes to occasionally use is to wait for someone to depart the U.S., then slap him/her on the no-fly. The traveler, stuck abroad, clearly has fewer resources to challenge anything or file internet forms and wait by the post box.
A nice scheme, but since U.S. citizens have a right under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution to return to U.S. territory after traveling abroad, and lawful permanent residents (“green-card holders”) have a similar right to return under the Immigration and Nationality Act, in fact such a move by DHS is essentially unconstitutional and/or illegal.
So, as one part of the government says you are a terrorist and cannot fly to America, another part of the government is constitutionally obligated to get you back to America. Denied boarding overseas due to the no-fly? Someone in the U.S. (can be a lawyer) must call the State Department and ask that they help you. The ACLU has a handy cheat-sheet with all the details. At some point you will visit the American Embassy in your country of no-fly exile, and, after an average two week delay, re-book your ticket to return to the United States. The cost of all this is on you, and you can expect a detailed welcome from the FBI and others when you touch down in the Homeland. Coming “home” may then mean your mom’s place in Cleveland, or it can mean a jail cell near the airport in Cleveland.
We’ll admit that there probably are some really bad people out there who’d we would just prefer not sitting next to us on a flight. But who ends up on the no-fly instead?
The Associated Press reported in 2012 that the federal no-fly list had “more than doubled in the past year” and had grown to about 21,000 people, including some 500 Americans. CBS’ news show, 60 Minutes, states the no-fly list actually has 44,000 names on it. A CBS reporter claims to have seen a portion of the names on no-fly in 2007, and noted Saddam Hussein was on the list, as well as 14 of the 19 September 11th hijackers, all of whom were very dead at the time. Osama bin Laden was also on the list on the off-chance he would have decided to fly to the U.S. under his real name for some reason.
Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, a group of thirteen Americans who were barred from boarding domestic flights or planes leaving or bound for the U.S. between June 2009 and November 2012 is suing. One of the plaintiffs in that case is Army veteran Raymond Earl Knaeble, who found himself unable to fly coincidentally after converting to Islam. Four others in the no-fly lawsuit are also military veterans. One was forced to return to the U.S. from Columbia by bus, a long and dangerous trip. Another plaintiff was placed on the list only after he flew from California to the U.S. Virgin Islands. He was forced to take a five-day boat trip and a four-day train ride home.
How Can This Be Legal?
Like much of the (known) legislation passed after 9/11, it has been very hard to challenge the no-fly in courts. One significant issue is standing, the right to sue. Persons typically never know for certain they are on the no-fly list, the government will never confirm or deny someone is on the list, and so, absent proof, one may not be able to sue the government. The government has and likely will also continue to cite national security and classified information to block cases from even entering the court system.
In the lawsuit noted above, the ACLU is arguing that the no-fly list is a violation of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Fifth Amendment says to the federal government that no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” The meaning is that all levels of American government must operate within the law and provide fair procedures. For example, you cannot be arrested and tried without having legal counsel, being informed of the charges, having the chance to review the evidence against you and so forth. Creating a secret list without any clear means of challenging placement on that list, is, the ACLU contends, unconstitutional.
The government argues in return that national security prevents a more open system– we can’t tip off the terrorists– and that limited judicial review covers any due process requirement. No-fly list appeals may ultimately go to a federal appellate court, but that court makes decisions based only on government input. The person affected is not even present and will never know what evidence the government presented against him in this secret court.
The ACLU’s case against the no-fly list is currently being heard in U.S. District Court, in front of a judge who at least appears to be asking serious questions of the government, and who has stated she holds not being able to fly is indeed a case of the government depriving someone of their “liberty,” as stated in the Fifth Amendment. The outcome of the case is of course uncertain, and will no doubt be appealed as far as it can go.
Until then Americans, happy travels!
The government can kill all cell service in a designated area of its choice during “emergencies,” and does not want to disclose any details about how or when they might employ this.
Implications for the First Amendment are made clear by one known local use — San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit System disabled service to quell protests in four downtown San Francisco stations over the fatal shooting of Charles Blair Hill by police.
Standing Operating Procedure 303
The Department of Homeland Security came up with the Federal-level plan — known as Standing Operating Procedure 303 — after cellular phones were used to detonate explosives targeting the London public transportation system in 2005. Unbeknownst at the time to the public, the government shut down cell service in various locations in New York City, primarily around tunnels to and from Manhattan.
SOP 303 spells out a “unified voluntary process for the orderly shut-down and restoration of wireless services during critical emergencies such as the threat of radio-activated improvised explosive devices.” Since the details of SOP 303 remain secret, no one is certain when or how it might be invoked.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in February sided with the government and ruled that the policy did not need to be disclosed under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC.) The court agreed with the government’s citation of a FOIA exemption that precludes disclosure if doing so “could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual.”
EPIC asked the court to revisit its ruling. On April 10, the court ordered the government to respond, a move that suggests the appellate court might rehear the case.
EPIC originally asked for the document in 2011 in the wake of the shut down of mobile phone service in the San Francisco Bay Area subway system during a protest. The government withheld the information, EPIC sued and won, but the government then appealed and prevailed.
Who Decides When to Kill the Network?
Under the direction of the so-called National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, SOP 303 allows for the shutting down of wireless networks “within a localized area, such as a tunnel or bridge, and within an entire metropolitan area.” That Advisory Committee is a Reagan-era, presidentially-appointed body composed of up to 30 senior executive-level representatives from communications, information technology, banking, and aerospace companies.
Since SOP 303 is not a law, it cannot be enforced. However, the telecoms have agreed to cut off cell service voluntarily whenever the Federal government requests SOP 303 be invoked.
The process of shutting down the cell service goes through the National Coordinating Center for Telecommunications (NCC), a coordination body set up by Ronald Reagan in 1984. The NCC, which includes representatives from the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Security Agency, every important cabinet department, and a few dozen big telecommunications and defense companies, takes shutdown requests from state and national Homeland Security officials, verifies whether they are “necessary,” and passes those requests on to wireless carriers in the affected areas.
First Amendment Questions
Because cutting off communications imposes a prior restraint on speech, it’s unclear whether SOP 303 is constitutional, and of course the specifics of the agreement are secret and the limits of government authority in this area have never been tested in court.
According to Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, governments in places like China regularly shut down cellphone service to quell protests. “They did it in Egypt as well,” she explained, during the protests that deposed former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
The exact decision-making process in the United States is classified. But you’ll know when it happens — check your phone for bars.
The U.S. is running around in circles in the Middle East, patching together coalitions here, acquiring strange bedfellows there, and in location after location trying to figure out who the enemy of its enemy actually is. The result is just what you’d expect: chaos further undermining whatever’s left of the nations whose frailty birthed the jihadism America is trying to squash.
And in a classic tale of unintended consequences, just about every time Washington has committed another blunder in the Middle East, Iran has stepped in to take advantage. Consider that country the rising power in the region and credit American clumsiness for the new Iranian ascendancy.
Today’s News — and Some History
The U.S. recently concluded air strikes in support of the Iraqi militias that Iran favors as they took back the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State (IS). At the same time, Washington began supplying intelligence and aerial refueling on demand for a Saudi bombing campaign against the militias Iran favors in Yemen. Iran continues to advise and assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Washington would still like to depose and, as part of its Syrian strategy, continues to supply and direct Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group the U.S. considers a terror outfit.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has successfully negotiated the outlines of an agreement with Iran in which progress on severely constricting its nuclear program would be traded for an eventual lifting of sanctions and the granting of diplomatic recognition. This is sure to further bolster Tehran’s status as a regional power, while weakening long-time American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States.
A clever pundit could undoubtedly paint all of the above as a realpolitik ballet on Washington’s part, but the truth seems so much simpler and more painful. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. policy in the region has combined confusion on an immense scale with awkward bursts of ill-coordinated and exceedingly short-term acts of expediency. The country that has most benefited is Iran. No place illustrates this better than Iraq.
Iraq Redux (Yet Again)
On April 9, 2003, just over 12 years ago, U.S. troops pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, symbolically marking what George W. Bush hoped was the beginning of a campaign to remake the Middle East in America’s image by bringing not just Iraq but Syria and Iran to heel. And there can be no question that the invasion of Iraq did indeed set events in motion that are still remaking the region in ways once unimaginable.
In the wake of the Iraq invasion and occupation, the Arab Spring blossomed and failed. (The recent Obama administration decision to resume arms exports to the military government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt could be considered its coup de grâce.) Today, fighting ripples through Libya, Syria, Yemen, the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa, and other parts of the Greater Middle East. Terrorists attack in once relatively peaceful places like Tunisia. There is now a de facto independent Kurdistan — last a reality in the sixteenth century — that includes the city of Kirkuk. Previously stable countries have become roiling failed states and home to terrorist groups that didn’t even exist when the U.S. military rolled across the Iraqi border in 2003.
And, of course, 12 years later in Iraq itself the fighting roars on. Who now remembers President Obama declaring victory in 2011 and praising American troops for coming home with their “heads held high”? He seemed then to be washing his hands forever of the pile of sticky brown sand that was Bush’s Iraq. Trillions had been spent, untold lives lost or ruined, but as with Vietnam decades earlier, the U.S. was to move on and not look back. So much for the dream of a successful Pax Americana in the Middle East, but at least it was all over.
You know what happened next. Unlike in Vietnam, Washington did go back, quickly turning a humanitarian gesture in August 2014 to save the Yazidi people from destruction at the hands of the Islamic State into a full-scale bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. A coalition of 62 nations was formed. (Where are they all now while the U.S. conducts 85% of all air strikes against IS?) The tap on a massive arms flow was turned on. The architect of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq and a leaker of top secret documents, retired general and former CIA Director David Petraeus, was brought back in for advice. Twenty-four-seven bombing became the order of the day and several thousand U.S. military advisors returned to familiar bases to retrain some part of an American-created army that had only recently collapsed and abandoned four key northern cities to Islamic State militants. Iraq War 3.0 was officially underway and many pundits — including me — predicted a steady escalation with the usual quagmire to follow.
Such a result can hardly be ruled out yet, but at the moment it’s as if Barack Obama had stepped to the edge of the Iraqi abyss, peered over, and then shrugged his shoulders. Both his administration and the U.S. military appear content for the moment neither to pull back nor press harder.
The American people seem to feel much the same way. Except in the Republican Congress (and even there in less shrill form than usual), there are few calls for… well, anything. The ongoing air strikes remain “surgical” in domestic politics, if not in Iraq and Syria. Hardly noticed and little reported on here, they have had next to no effect on Americans. Yet they remain sufficient to assure the right wing that the American military is still the best tool to solve problems abroad, while encouraging liberals who want to show that they can be as tough as anyone going into 2016.
At first glance, the American version of Iraq War 3.0 has the feel of the Libyan air intervention — the same lack of concern, that is, for the long game. But Iraq 2015 is no Libya 2011, because this time while America sits back, Iran rises.
The Middle East was ripe for change. Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the last major transformational event in the area was the fall of that classic American stooge, the Shah of Iran, in 1979. Otherwise, many of the thug regimes in power since the 1960s, the height of the Cold War, had stayed in place, and so had most of the borders set even earlier, in the aftermath of World War I.
Iran should send America a fruit basket to thank it for setting the stage so perfectly for its ascent. As a start, in 2003 the United States eliminated Iran’s major border threats: Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to the west and the Taliban in Afghanistan to the east. (The Taliban are back of course, but diligently focused on America’s puppet Afghan government.) The long slog of Washington’s wars in both those countries dulled even the reliably bloodthirsty American public’s taste for yet more of the same, and cooled off Bush-era plans in Tel Aviv and Washington for air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. (After all, if even Vice President Dick Cheney couldn’t pull the trigger on Iran before leaving office in 2008, who in 2015 America is going to do so?)
Better yet for the Iranians, when Saddam was hanged in 2006, they not only lost an enemy who had invaded their country in 1980, launching a bitter war against them that didn’t end for eight years, but gained an ally in the new Iraq. As U.S. influence withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi elections to produce a broadly representative government, Iran stepped in to broker a thoroughly partisan settlement leading to a sectarian Shia government in Baghdad bent on ensuring that the country’s minority Sunni population would remain out of power forever. The Obama administration seemed nearly oblivious to Iran’s gains in Iraq in 2010 — and seems so again in 2015.
Iran in Iraq
In Tikrit, Iranian-led Shia forces recently drove the Islamic State from the city. In charge was Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Qods Force (a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards), who had previously led the brutally effective efforts of Iranian special forces against U.S. soldiers in Iraq War 2.0. He returned to that country and assembled his own coalition of Shia militias to take Tikrit. All of them have long benefited from Iranian support, as has the increasingly Shia-dominated Iraqi army.
In addition, the Iranians seem to have brought in their own tanks and possibly even ground troops for the assault on the city. They also moved advanced rocket systems into Iraq, the same weapons Hamas has used against Israel in recent conflicts.
Only one thing was lacking: air power. After much hemming and hawing, when it looked like the assault on Tikrit had been blunted by well-dug-in Islamic State fighters in a heavily booby-trapped city, the Obama administration agreed to provide it.
On the U.S. side, the air of desperation around the decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit was palpable. You could feel it, for instance, in this statement by a Pentagon spokesperson almost pleading for the Iraqi government to favor Washington over Tehran: “I think it’s important that the Iraqis understand that what would be most helpful to them is a reliable partner in this fight against IS. Reliable, professional, advanced military capabilities are something that very clearly and very squarely reside with the coalition.”
Imagine if you had told an American soldier — or general — leaving Iraq in 2011 that, just a few years later in the country where he or she had watched friends die, the U.S. would be serving as Iran’s close air support. Imagine if you had told him that Washington would be helping some of the same Shia militias who planted IEDs to kill Americans go after Sunnis — and essentially begging for the chance to do so. Who would’ve thunk it?
The Limits of Air Power 101
The White House no doubt imagined that U.S. bombs would be seen as the decisive factor in Tikrit and that the sectarian government in Baghdad would naturally come to… What? Like us better than the Iranians?
Bizarre as such a “strategy” might seem on the face of it, it has proven even stranger in practice. The biggest problem with air power is that, while it’s good at breaking things, it isn’t decisive. It cannot determine who moves into the governor’s mansion after the dust settles. Only ground forces can do that, so a victory over the Islamic State in Tikrit, no matter what role air strikes played, can only further empower those Iranian-backed Shia militias. You don’t have to be a military expert to know that this is the nature of air power, which makes it all the more surprising that American strategists seem so blind to it.
As for liking Washington better for its helping hand, there are few signs of that. Baghdad officials have largely been silent on America’s contribution, praising only the “air coverage of the Iraqi air force and the international coalition.” Shia militia forces on the ground have been angered by and scornful of the United States for — as they see it — interfering in their efforts to take Tikrit on their own.
The victory in that city will only increase the government’s reliance on the militias, whom Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi now refers to as “popular volunteers,” rather than the still-limited number of soldiers the Americans have so far been capable of training. (The Pentagon might, by the way, want to see if Iran can pass along any training tips, as their militias, unlike the American-backed Iraqi army, seem to be doing just fine.) That also means that the government will have no choice but to tolerate the Shia militia atrocities and acts of ethnic cleansing that have already taken place in Sunni Tikrit and will surely follow in any other Sunni areas similarly “liberated.” Claims coming out of Washington that the U.S. will be carefully monitoring the acts of Iraqi forces ring increasingly hollow.
What Tikrit has, in fact, done is solidify Iran’s influence over Prime Minister al-Abadi, currently little more than the acting mayor of Baghdad, who claimed the victory in Tikrit as a way to increase his own prestige. The win also allows his Shia-run government to seize control of the ruins of that previously Sunni enclave. And no one should miss the obvious symbolism that lies in the fact that the first major city retaken from the Islamic State in a Sunni area is also the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.
The best the Obama administration can do is watch helplessly as Tehran and Baghdad take their bows. A template has been created for a future in which other Sunni areas, including the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and Sunni cities in Anbar Province will be similarly retaken, perhaps with the help of American air power but almost certainly with little credit to Washington.
Iran in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen
Tehran is now playing a similarly important role in other places where U.S. policy stumbles have left voids, particularly in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
In Syria, Iranian forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Qods Force, and their intelligence services, advise and assist Bashar al-Assad’s military. They also support Hezbollah elements from Lebanon fighting on Assad’s side. At best, Washington is again playing second fiddle, using its air power against the Islamic State and training “moderate” Syrian fighters, the first of whom refused to even show up for their initial battle.
In Yemen, a U.S.-supported regime, backed by Special Forces advisers and a full-scale drone targeted assassination campaign, recently crumbled. The American Embassy was evacuated in February, the last of those advisers in March. The takeover of the capital, Sana’a, and later significant parts of the rest of the country by the Houthis, a rebel Shiite minority group, represents, in the words of one Foreign Policy writer, “a huge victory for Iran… the Houthis’ decision to tie their fate to Tehran’s regional machinations risks tearing Yemen apart and throwing the country into chaos.”
The panicked Saudis promptly intervened and were quickly backed by the Obama administration’s insertion of the United States in yet another conflict by executive order. Relentless Saudi air strikes (perhaps using some of the $640 million worth of cluster bombs the U.S. sold them last year) are supported by yet another coalition, this time of Sudan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and other Sunni powers in the region. The threat of an invasion, possibly using Egyptian troops, looms. The Iranians have moved ships into the area in response to a Saudi naval blockade of Yemen.
No matter what happens, Iran will be strengthened. Either it will find itself in a client relationship with a Houthi movement that has advanced to the Saudi border or, should they be driven back, a chaotic state in Yemen with an ever-strengthening al-Qaeda offshoot. Either outcome would undoubtedly discombobulate the Saudis (and the Americans) and so sit well with Iran.
To make things even livelier in a fragmenting region, Sunni rebels infiltrating from neighboring Pakistan recently killed eight Iranian border guards. This probably represented a retaliatory attack in response to an earlier skirmish in which Iranian Revolutionary Guards killed three suspected Pakistani Sunni militants. Once started, fires do tend to spread.
For those keeping score at home, the Iranians now hold significant positions in three Middle Eastern countries (or at least fragments of former countries) in addition to Iraq.
Iran Ascending and the Nuclear Question
Iran is well positioned to ascend. Geopolitically, alone in the region it is a nation that has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years. It is almost completely ethnically stable and religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous, with its minorities comparatively under control. While still governed in large part by its clerics, Iran has seen evolving democratic electoral transitions at the secular level. Politically, history is on Iran’s side. If you set aside the 1953 CIA-backed coup that ousted the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and put the U.S.-backed Shah in power for a quarter of a century, Iran has sorted out its governance on its own for some time.
Somehow, despite decades of sanctions, Iran, with the fourth-largest proven crude oil reserves and the second-largest natural gas reserves on the planet, has managed to hold its economy together, selling what oil it can primarily to Asia. It is ready to sell more oil as soon as sanctions lift. It has a decent conventional military by local standards. Its young reportedly yearn for greater engagement with the West. Unlike nearly every other nation in the Middle East, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one — 36 years ago.
Recently, the U.S., Iran, and the P5 (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) reached a preliminary agreement to significantly constrain that country’s nuclear program and lift sanctions. It appears that both the Obama administration and Tehran are eager to turn it into an official document by the end of June. A deal isn’t a deal until signed on the dotted line, and the congressional Republicans are sharpening their knives, but the intent is clearly there.
To keep the talks on track, by the end of June the Obama administration will have released to the Islamic Republic a total of $11.9 billion in previously frozen assets, dating back to the 1979 Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. In addition to the straight-up flood of cash, the U.S. agreed that Iran may sell $4.2 billion worth of oil, free from any sanctions. The U.S. will also allow Iran approximately $1.5 billion in gold sales, as well as easier access to “humanitarian transactions.” Put another way, someone in Washington wanted this badly enough to pay for it.
For President Obama and his advisers, this agreement is clearly a late grasp (or perhaps last gasp) at legacy building, and maybe even a guilty stab at justifying that 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. The urge to etch some kind of foreign policy success into future history books that, at the moment, threaten to be grim reading is easy enough to understand. So it should have surprised no one that John Kerry, Obama’s once globetrotting secretary of state, basically took up residence in Switzerland to negotiate with the Iranians. He sat at the table in Lausanne bargaining while Tikrit burned, Syria simmered, his country was chased out of Yemen, and the Saudis launched their own war in that beleaguered country. That he had hardly a word to say about any of those events, or much of anything else going on in the world at the time, is an indication of just how much value the Obama administration puts on those nuclear negotiations.
For the Iranians, trading progress on developing nuclear weapons for the full-scale lifting of sanctions was an attractive offer. After all, its leaders know that the country could never go fully nuclear without ensuring devastating Israeli strikes, and so lost little with the present agreement while gaining much. Being accepted as a peer by Washington in such negotiations only further establishes their country’s status as a regional power. Moreover, a nuclear agreement that widens any rift between the U.S., Israel, and the Saudis plays to Tehran’s new strength. Finally, the stronger economy likely to blossom once sanctions are lifted will offer the nation the possibility of new revenues and renewed foreign investment. (It’s easy to imagine Chinese businesspeople on Orbitz making air reservations as you read this.) The big winner in the nuclear deal is not difficult to suss out.
What Lies Ahead
In these last months, despite the angry, fearful cries and demands of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Saudi royals, and neo- and other conservatives in Congress, Iran has shown few signs of aspiring to the sort of self-destruction going nuclear would entail. (If Iran had created a bomb every time Netanyahu claimed they were on the verge of having one in the past two decades, Tehran would be littered with them.) In fact, trading mushroom clouds with Israel and possibly the U.S. never looked like an appealing goal to the Iranian leadership. Instead, they preferred to seek a more conventional kind of influence throughout the Middle East. They were hardly alone in that, but their success has been singular in the region in these years.
The U.S. provided free tutorials in Afghanistan and Iraq on why actually occupying territory in the neighborhood isn’t the road to such influence. Iran’s leaders have not ignored the advice. Instead, Iran’s rise has been stoked by a collection of client states, aligned governments, sympathetic and/or beholden militias, and — when all else fails — chaotic non-states that promise less trouble and harm to Tehran than to its various potential enemies.
Despite Iran’s gains, the U.S. will still be the biggest kid on the block for years, possibly decades, to come. One hopes that America will not use that military and economic strength to lash out at the new regional power it inadvertently helped midwife. And if any of this does presage some future U.S. conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a great irony, a great tragedy, and a damn waste of American blood and resources.
By coincidence, only days after Hillary announced her candidacy, The Clinton Foundation announced changes to the way it handles donations and accountability.
Let’s look at the BS Factor on two of the most important “changes.”
After years of accepting donations from foreign governments, The Clinton Foundation said it will “limit” donations from foreign governments to six countries that already support it: Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom.
Until, well, a day or two ago, the Foundation imposed no such restraints on itself. According to The Wall Street Journal, the foundation has already received funding from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Australia, and Germany. A Canadian government agency that supports the Keystone XL oil pipeline has also given money to the foundation.
No potential conflicts of interest here, right? Let’s see:
— The Canadian Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development agency donated between $250,000 and $500,000 (the Clinton’s only report donations in such ranges.) The Journal, however, claims the exact amount of the donation was somewhere around $480,000.
— Last year, the United Arab Emirates donated somewhere between $1 million and $5 million.
— Saudi Arabia’s donations total between $10 million and $25 million.
— The Australian government has given between $5 million and $10 million in 2014. It also gave in 2013, when its donations fell in the same range.
— Qatar’s government committee preparing for the 2022 soccer World Cup gave between $250,000 and $500,000 in 2014. Qatar’s government had previously donated between $1 million and $5 million.
— Oman, which had made a donation previously, gave an undisclosed amount in 2014. Over time, Oman has given the foundation between $1 million and $5 million.
BS Factor: Very High. Despite appearances, nations like Canada still have need to influence the possible next president of the United States. In addition, does anyone really think just because donations stopped this week, the previous millions given by the Saudis and others will have no influence? Finally, we have seen this before. The fact that the Foundation previously stopped seeking such donations when Hillary became Secretary of State, then restarted them again after she left office, only makes things seem more sleazy and hypocritical.
The Clinton Foundation also said it will now disclose its donors more frequently, publishing the names of new contributors four times a year. Where have we heard this before?
Oh, right, from the The Clinton Foundation.
According to Reuters, in 2008, Hillary Clinton promised president-elect Barack Obama there would be no mystery about who was giving money to her family’s charities. She made a pledge to publish all the donors’ names on an annual basis to ease concerns that as Secretary of State she could be vulnerable to accusations of foreign influence. The Clinton Foundation did indeed publish a list of donors at first, but, in a breach of the pledge, the charity’s flagship health program, which spends more than all of the other foundation initiatives put together, stopped making the annual disclosure in 2010.
Officials at the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) and the foundation confirmed to Reuters no complete list of donors to the Clintons’ charities has been published since 2010. CHAI was spun off as a separate legal entity that year, but the officials acknowledged it still remains subject to the same disclosure agreement as the foundation. CHAI published only a partial donor list, and only for the first time, and only this year.
We’re Ready, for Hillary.
(Today we feature, with permission, a guest post by Daniel N. White. The post originally appeared on Contrary Perspective. All opinions are the author’s.)
James Fallows, a noted journalist and author of National Defense (1981), is tits on a boar useless these days.
That’s my conclusion after reading his Atlantic Monthly cover story, The Tragedy of the American Military, in which he asks, “Why do the best soldiers in the world keep losing?” It is a truly terrible article that, regrettably, is mainstream U.S. journalism’s best effort by one of their better talents to answer a vitally important question.
Right off the bat, I’m going to have to say that the U.S. Army doesn’t produce “the world’s best soldiers” — and it never has. We Americans don’t do infantry as well as others do. This is reasonably well known. Anyone who wants to dispute the point has to dispute not me but General George Patton, who in 1944 said: “According to Napoleon, the weaker the infantry the stronger the artillery must be. Thank God we’ve got the world’s best artillery.” Operational analysis of us by the German Wehrmacht and the PLA (China) said the same thing. We should know that about ourselves by now and we don’t, and the fact that we don’t, particularly after a chain of military defeats by lesser powers, says a good deal bad about us as a people and society. The Atlantic and James Fallows are both professionally derelict to continue printing these canards about our infantry prowess. “The world’s best” — there is no excuse for such hyperbolic boasting.
Why the U.S. keeps losing its wars, and why James Fallows has no clue as to why, is revealing of the American moment. It’s painfully obvious the U.S. has lost its most recent wars because it has lacked coherent and achievable objectives for them. (Or no objectives that our ruling elites were willing to share with us.)
Just what, exactly, was the end result supposed to be from invading Iraq in 2003? If the Taliban were willing as they stated to hand over Osama Bin Laden to us, why did we invade Afghanistan? Why did we then start a new war in Afghanistan once we overthrew the Taliban?
Of course, this isn’t the first time in recent history that the U.S. has fought wars with no coherent rationale. Vietnam had the same problem. The Pentagon Papers showed that insofar as we had a rationale it was to continue the war for sufficiently long enough to show the rest of the world we weren’t to be trifled with, even if we didn’t actually win it. Dick Nixon was quite upfront in private about this too; that’s documented in the Nixon tapes.
Not having clear and achievable political objectives in a war or major military campaign is a guarantee of military failure. Here’s what arguably the best Allied general in WWII had to say about this, William Slim, from his superlative memoirs, Defeat into Victory, writing of the Allied defeat in Burma, 1942:
Of these causes [of the defeat], one affected all our efforts and contributed much to turning our defeat into disaster — the failure, after the fall of Rangoon, to give the forces in the field a clear strategic object for the campaign… Yet a realistic assessment of possibilities there and a firm, clear directive would have made a great deal of difference to us and to the way we fought. Burma was not the first, nor was it to be the last, campaign that had been launched on no very clear realization of its political or military objects. A study of such campaigns points emphatically to the almost inevitable disaster that must follow. Commanders in the field, in fairness to them and their troops, must be clear and definitely told what is the object they are locally to attain.
Anyone who wishes to dispute the lack of clear and achievable objectives for America’s wars should try to answer the question of what a U.S. victory in Iraq or Afghanistan would look like. What would be different in the two countries from a U.S. victory? How would the application of force by the U.S. military have yielded these desired results, whatever they were?
I invite anyone to answer these questions. They should have been asked, and answered, a long time ago. All the parties concerned — the political class, the intelligentsia, the moral leadership, and the military’s senior officer corps — in America have failed, stupendously, by not doing so.
Indeed, the lack of coherent objectives for these wars stems from the fraudulence of our pretenses for starting them. Even senior U.S. and UK leaders have acknowledged the stage-management of falsehoods about weapons of mass destruction for a rationale for war with Iraq. When wars are started on falsehoods, it isn’t reasonable to expect them to have honest (or moral) objectives.
The question then arises: What were the real objectives of these wars? Economic determinists/Marxists look to oil as the underlying reason, but this can’t be it. None of the economic determinist explanations for the Vietnam War made a lick of sense then or now, and any arguments about war for oil make an assumption, admittedly a remotely possible one, about the ruling elites in the U.S. and UK not being able to read a financial balance sheet. The most cursory run of the financials under the best possible assumptions of the promoters of the wars showed Iraq as a giant money loser, world’s third largest oil reserves or not. Economic reasons for a war in Afghanistan? Nobody could ever be that dumb, not even broadcast journalists.
Judging from the results, the real intent of our political leadership was to create a state of permanent war, for narrow, behind the scenes, domestic political reasons. The wars were/are stage-managed domestic political theater for current political ruling elites. The main domestic objective sought was a Cold-War like freezing of political power and authority in current form by both locking up large areas of political debate as off-limits and increasing the current distribution of societal resources toward economic elites. This was the real objective of both sides in the Cold War, Americans and Russians both, once things settled out after 1953, and most historians just lack the ability and perspective to see it.
A related factor Americans aren’t supposed to discuss is how much of the drive to war was neo-con war promotion manipulated by Israel. There’s no getting around the high percentage of Jewish neo-cons inside the Beltway. There’s a seven decade-long history of American country-cousin Jews being manipulated by their Israeli city-slicker relations, too, but I’d call this a contributing factor and not a causative one. But the willingness of American neo-cons to do Israel’s bidding and launch a war against Iraq is most disturbing and does require more research. (They all seem to be willing to do it again in Iran – was there ever a neo-con ever against an Iran war ever? Just look at the current situation vis-à-vis Iran, and the direct intervention by the Israeli Prime Minister into American foreign policy.)
There is one other possibility: that America’s leaders actually believed their own PR about spreading democracy. That’s been known to happen, but under present circumstances, their coming to believe their own PR knowing it was false from the git-go would be something truly unique and horrifying. But not impossible, I’m afraid.
Cui Bono? (To whose benefit) is always the question we need to ask and with 13 years of war the beneficiaries should be obvious enough. Just follow the money, and follow those whose powers get increased. James Fallows, and everyone else in the mainstream news media, hasn’t.
But the most pressing issue isn’t any of the above. The most pressing issue is moral, and most importantly of all our society’s unwillingness to face the hard moral questions of war.
Above all else, war is a moral issue; undoubtedly the most profound one a society has to face. Wars are the acme of moral obscenity. Terrible moral bills inevitably accrue from the vile actions that warfare entails. It has always been so. As long as there has been civilization there has always been great debate as to what political or social wrongs warrant the commission of the crimes and horrors of war. About the only definitively conceded moral rationale for war is self-defense against external attack. Domestic political theater is nothing new as a reason for war, but it has been universally condemned as grotesquely immoral throughout recorded history.
Our country is ostrich-like in its refusal to acknowledge the moral obscenity of war and its moral costs. Insofar as your average American is willing to engage with these moral issues, it is at the level of “I support our troops” to each other, combined with the “Thank you for your service” to anyone in uniform. Moral engagement on the biggest moral issue there is, war, with these tiresome tropes is profoundly infantile. It isn’t moral engagement; it is a (partially subconscious) willful evasion.
The Hollywood sugarcoated picture of what war is hasn’t helped here; blindness due to American Exceptionalism hasn’t helped either. Our intellectual and moral leadership—churches in particular—have been entirely AWOL on the moral failings of our wars and the moral debts and bills from them we have accrued and continue to accrue. And these bills will come due some day, with terrible interest accrued. Anyone paying attention to how the rest of the world thinks knows that we currently incur the world’s contumely for our failings here on this issue.
Mr. Fallows and the Atlantic are both equally blind and AWOL on the moral issues of our wars. The moral issues, and failings, of the wars are paramount and are completely undiscussed in the article, and the magazine, and always have been since before the wars began. Mr. Fallows, and the Atlantic, by framing the war issue in terms of “why the best (sic) soldiers in the world keep losing our wars” are avoiding them in a somewhat more sophisticated way than the “Thank you for your service” simpletons are. They should know better and they don’t, and they lack the situational- and self-awareness to understand that they are doing this. They deserve our contempt for it. They certainly have mine.
The issue isn’t why the world’s best (sic) soldiers keep losing our wars. The issue is why we started and fought wars this stupid and wrong and show every sign of continuing to do so in the future. Why do we learn nothing from our military defeats? How can we remain so willfully and morally blind? Well, types like James Fallows and The Atlantic Monthly are a large part of why.
Missing the biggest political and moral question in our lifetimes, for this many years, well, hell, The Atlantic Monthly and James Fallows are just tits on a boar useless these days.
Japan absorbed WWII. The collective memory was tidied up. Little is taught about the war in modern Japanese schools, and even less of what is taught is true. There seems no reason to bring up all those bad deeds and rotten memories. For the most part, the Japanese created their own alternate history of the war.
So it is all the more shocking that a Japanese university opened a museum acknowledging that its staff performed vivisections on a handful of downed American airmen (above) during World War II. The incident has been previously documented by both sides of the war, but the very public and ongoing acknowledgement of the atrocity at the site where it was committed is quite unusual for Japan.
The newly-opened museum at Kyushu University explains how eight U.S. POWs were taken to the center’s medical school in Fukuoka after their plane was shot down in May 1945. The flyers were subjected to horrific medical experiments. Doctors dissected one soldier’s brain to see if epilepsy could be controlled by surgery, and removed parts of the livers of other prisoners as part of tests to see if they would survive. Another soldier was injected with seawater, in an experiment to see if it could be used instead of sterile saline solution to help dehydration.
The airmen so tortured were aboard a B-29 on a bombing raid over Fukuoka. They all bailed out when their aircraft was rammed by a Japanese fighter.
The ethics of hell come into play when we think a bit on what those flyers were doing in the skies over Fukuoka: dropping bombs in hopes of burning, shredding or maiming as many Japanese as possible.
The U.S. at this late stage of the war was as a strategy not discriminating between “military” and “civilian” targets, and often conducted mass firebombing raids over cities. Thousands of incendiaries were dropped simultaneously in hopes of creating a firestorm, a conflagration that burned hot and long enough to literally suck the oxygen out of the air and kill everything beneath it.
I have a history of the war on my bookshelf that makes quite a point of being horrified, with no obvious irony, that when the Japanese captured another group of shot-down B-29 crewman from firebombing missions, the flyers were burned alive in an impromptu fire; some others were killed with boiling water. It says elsewhere a negotiated peace was impossible when one side was fighting for civilization and the other represented barbarism.
Same kind of thing in an actual description from another book of one of the terrible things that happened in the Pacific War: “As the bodies started to sizzle, their arms and legs twitched, and they sat up as if they were alive. Smoke came out of their eye sockets, their mouths opened, and licks of flames came out. Their lungs were full of steam, and hissing noises came out.”
Did that description come from the firebombing of a Japanese city, or from the burning alive of American prisoners? It was one of the two, though it describes both, but how does that matter?